It’s springtime, which means Major League Baseball and Little League baseball/softball across the country is underway. Unfortunately, over the years there have been more and more incidents of injuries that have occurred to these athletes. The most common injured parts of the body have been the shoulder and the elbow. Some athletes have been able to receive conservative treatment for these injuries such as physical therapy, medication and/or rest, while others unfortunately need surgery to repair damaged structures. The name Tommy John has been synonymous with elbow injuries since 1974 when a surgeon named Frank Jobe performed an ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery on then Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Tommy John. It was the first of its kind and enabled the athlete to return to pitching for another 15 years. The “Tommy John Surgery” as it is known as today is a procedure to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament (which is the ligament on the inner part of the elbow) by using a tendon from a cadaver or another part of the body (most commonly the forearm or back of the leg). This procedure has been quite successful however, it usually means that a pitcher is not able to return to throwing competitively for a year after surgery.
The throwing motion is a very unnatural movement for the shoulder. The movement that usually causes these injuries is when a pitcher or thrower’s arm is cocked all the way back before they thrust their body forward to deliver the ball. There is a tremendous amount of stress on the inner elbow at that point. Then, if you add up the number of repetitions this motion occurs during a game and a season it can create too much tension on this small ligament of the body.
The danger for the sport of baseball at this time is the number of players that are having Tommy John Surgery. In Major League Baseball 25% of pitchers have had this surgery, along with 15% of minor league pitchers. More pitchers had the surgery in the year 2014 than in the entirety of the 1990s. The more startling numbers are those at the adolescent levels. Over the past 20 years there have been 3 times as many kids that have needed this surgery.
More pitchers had the surgery in the year 2014 than in the entirety of the 1990s
There are likely several factors that have led to more athletes having this surgery. First of all there is a greater awareness of the injury, plus the ability to have more clear diagnostic imaging has enabled trained physicians to better diagnose the injury. But the more important factor is the idea that kids are throwing way too much. Now more kids are specializing in one sport (such as baseball) instead of playing a variety of sports throughout the year.
Prevention Is Key
In order to decrease the likelihood of this injury occurring kids should not be throwing all year. There should be parts of the year where they are not putting that stress on their arm. Have kids play other sports to occupy their time as well as to stay in shape. Another idea is to limit the number of pitches thrown during each game and over the course of a season. This idea has been adopted by more of the baseball leagues across the country.
Fitness should also play a more prominent role in these athlete’s daily lives. Unfortunately, most kids that become injured will have very poor strength of their lower body and trunk. They also usually have very limited muscle flexibility. These restrictions on the body will create more stress to the body causing greater potential for injury. The big thing is fitness should not be taken lightly. It is important for these athletes to be screened by a trained professional who can recommend to them the best exercise prescription to fit their individual needs.