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Over the years protective equipment has evolved with technology to help reduce the risk of injuries in various sports. In football, high tech helmets reduce the risk of serious head injuries, while mouth guards provide protection against oral and dental trauma in sports like soccer.
Today, certain protective equipment are even required for different sports such as face guards in hockey, chest, leg and arm pads in football, and batting helmets in baseball and softball.
Recently, batting vests were developed with the intent to protect batters from injuries that result from direct impacts to the chest by baseballs. Although not required, some athletes from hockey, lacrosse and especially baseball have chosen to wear these chest protectors with the assumption that it protects against adverse outcomes. Specifically, sudden cardiac death from blunt chest wall blows known as commotio cordis.
Believe it or not, there have been scenarios on the playing field where athletes get struck in the chest by a baseball, hockey puck or lacrosse ball and then suddenly collapse and die. Typically, this occurs when an object strikes a specific area in the chest at a particular time in the cycle of a beating heart, causing the heart to beat irregularly. This event can sometimes lead to sudden cardiac death.
Like helmets, chest protectors are designed to absorb and distribute the force from a striking object so that the individual wearing the protective gear experiences less of an impact. In this regard, chest protectors can certainly reduce the risk of traumatic structural injuries to the chest, like rib fractures. Conversely, they have not been proven to be effective in preventing sudden cardiac death from commotio cordis.
As a matter of fact, studies have shown that about 30% of the athletes who died from commotio cordis during a sporting event were wearing some type of chest protector. Other studies using animal models have also found that commercially available chest wall protectors were not effective in preventing sudden death from chest wall impact. However, research efforts are taking place to improve the material composition and the design of chest protectors so that they may hopefully afford athletes the protection against cardiac related deaths from chest blows. Until then, I still recommend chest protectors to provide athletes defense against bone and soft tissue injuries.
Check out more sports safety articles.
Written by the Sports Medicine team at Children’s Hospital Colorado. We are happy to consult with parents or referring providers before a patient is seen at Children’s Colorado.