Glove research looks to reduce hand injuries

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Brittany Hicks picks up the subtleties of the game. And now, that keen insight is taking pressure off one of the most difficult positions on the field.

As a former middle infielder for the Mustangs women’s softball team and member of the Canadian Senior Women’s National Team, Hicks noticed catchers on the national team were using first basemen’s gloves, as opposed to the more obvious catcher’s mitt.

“I started to look at this to see if, perhaps, the first-baseman’s glove was any better when it came to pressure on the hand and injuries that could occur,” said the recent Kinesiology alumna.

When playing softball, the hand sustains pressures far greater than the recommended thresholds for repetitive tasks. The hand’s only protection is the glove. Yet, no studies had been done on what type of glove – the bulky catcher’s, the longer first baseman’s or the traditional fielder’s – was most effective at reducing those pressures.

With the help of fellow Mustangs players, Hicks uncovered a possible reason as to why players often leave the catcher’s mitt in the dugout.

In her master’s thesis study, Comparative Analysis of Softball Gloves: Catcher’s Glove Yields Highest Peak Hand Pressure, Hicks found catchers commonly develop abnormal blood flow in the main blood vessels of the forearm, along with inadequate blood supply and swollen index fingers as a result of the continual trauma to the hand.

In softball, more than one in five injuries are of the hand and wrist, with one out of 10 affecting the fingers. Specifically, these injuries to the hand and wrist include mostly fractures and dislocations (40.2 per cent), strains and sprains (26.5 per cent) and soft tissue injuries (24.6 per cent), with more than half (52.4 per cent) caused by contact with the ball, not player-player collisions or player-bag collisions.

Using Tekscan pressure sensors – composed of 18 different sensing regions – Hicks showed the hand sustains an average peak pressure of 191 kilopascal (kPa) in the fielder’s glove, 232 kPa in the first baseman’s glove and 269 kPa in the catcher’s mitt. Across the entire hand, the tip of the index finger sustained the greatest pressure most frequently. Pressures greater than the 98 kPa threshold will substantially obstruct blood flow in the skin of the hand.

“It definitely has long-term impact, but it’s hard to tell how long,” Hicks said.

Although catchers do not experience the highest rates of injuries overall, their injuries are caused by repetitive impact and, therefore, can be preventable.

She continued, “Most catchers do have longer lasting injuries and most studies seem to reflect it lasts well past their time playing – they get more muscular pain; often experience vascular abnormalities which could include decreased blood flow to the hand; get some nerve pain symptoms, such as cold sensitivity. They may seem kind-of minor. They forget about it and say, ‘I can tough this out.’ But over time, it builds up and becomes a more serious injury.”

The current design of the catcher’s mitt aims to provide balance between protection and performance while improving the catcher’s ability to grasp and control the ball. In doing so, designers reduced padding in modern gloves. In addition, the new catcher’s mitt design causes the ball to be caught at the base of the webbing, corresponding to the base of the index finger, rather than impacting the glove further away from the palm.

Without the immediate sensation of discomfort, the catcher may not fully understand the consequences of continual impacts above the recommended threshold, Hicks said. Since players tend to avoid using additional padding, claiming it affects the ‘feel’ of their glove when catching a softball, the idea of peak pressure needs to be a priority when designing gloves.

“You could change the (catcher’s) glove. There has already been a change with preference in switching to the first basemen’s glove. So, catchers aren’t set in stone. They are willing to change if the performance is optimized as well,” Hicks said.

“Small changes over time could eventually move toward a better glove. The fielder’s glove in the study used a finger-shift model, moving the index finger further away from the pocket, which decreased the pressure on the hand. You would have to see if catchers were interested in that. Would they actually buy that glove? Moving the pocket further away from the hand would be something catchers would be interested in because it would minimize pressure, as well as increase the size of the mitt.”

Until then, Hicks suggests using the first basemen’s glove to see less impact, and therefore less damage, to the hand.