“Our bodies were not designed to throw a ball repeatedly at high speeds.”
It has been great to see the town and school ball fields around Westchester County coming to life once again – especially after the challenging year we all had last year. The popularity in ball sports seems to be growing everywhere. Over a five-year span, the number of US kids playing baseball and softball has risen by nearly 3 million, with more than 25 million kids playing in 2018 and many of them playing through multiple seasons, according to the Sports Fitness & Industry Association.
As a former college baseball player myself, I love the game and understand the desire to play year round. However, recent studies have shed light on the fact that early sport specialization or focusing on a single sport through multiple seasons at a young age can place our young athletes at risk for overuse injuries.
Speaking as an adult and pediatric orthopedic surgeon, I can tell you that our bodies were not designed to throw a ball at high speeds. When athletes perform this motion repeatedly, it places tremendous stress on the tendons and ligaments of the shoulder and elbow, putting them at risk for injury. Young athletes are especially at risk due to their developing musculoskeletal system.
One common overuse problem I see is injury to the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), sometimes referred to as the “Tommy John” ligament. This ligament is a band of strong connective tissue on the inside of the elbow that helps stabilize the elbow during the throwing motion. Overuse injuries to this structure can cause pain on the inside of the arm, clicking or popping sensations in the elbow, and decreased velocity. While seen most often in baseball pitchers, this problem can occur in all throwing athletes. If left untreated, the ligament can tear completely and may require surgery.
Luckily, most of these types of injuries heal with rest. In the case of baseball and softball, stopping throwing for two to four weeks followed by a gradual return to throwing is usually enough to get young athletes back on the field. Better yet, here is how parents can help prevent them from being put on the disabled list the first place:
Monitor how many pitches your child is throwing. USA Baseball, in conjunction with Major League Baseball, has released a Throwing Restrictions Guide for athletes ages 8 to 22. Adherence to these restrictions have been shown to effectively decrease the rates of overuse throwing injuries.
Focus on proper mechanics and work on strength and conditioning. In the case of baseball and softball, having a strong core and lower body are essential to staying healthy. The Throwers Ten Exercise Program, developed by the University of Florida, is designed to exercise the major muscles necessary for throwing and requires very little equipment. I recommend these exercises for all pitchers, both during the season and off-season, as well as any athletes coming back from injury.
During the season, institute a “time-out” from throwing a few days a week to allow the shoulder and elbow to recuperate. If your child insists on playing every day, he or she can focus on other elements of the game during practice (hitting, running, conditioning, etc…).
Don’t forget leg and core strength. A significant percentage of throwing velocity comes from the legs and core and a strong core can protect the shoulder and elbow from injury. Strength training has been shown to be safe and effective in young athletes but should focus on low weight and high repetitions. Body weight squats, lunges, and planks or other core focused exercises are a great way to begin to improve velocity and protect against future injury.
When the season ends, give your child at least 3 months off to allow the elbow and shoulder to rest. If your child is involved in other sports, that’s great! Skills learned in sports such as soccer, football, and basketball (among others) will only improve your child’s overall athleticism, hand-eye coordination, teamwork, and other skillsets.
Lastly and perhaps most important, help your child pay attention to their body. Changes in mechanics or throwing motion can sometimes mean they are in pain – if you see this, ask them. Helping your young ball payer stay in tune with their body and recognize when they may be overdoing it can go a long way to prevent injuries and ensure that they are able to play the game they love for many more years to come.