STRIKE!

Looking behind the baseball at UCL injuries … and the role former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tommy John plays

 

The goal of every great baseball pitcher is to strike out the batter.  To do this requires not only talent but extreme power every…single…pitch.

Few other athletes are required to throw with this kind of power as frequently as a pitcher.

Over the course of a baseball career, particularly if begun at a young age and played competitively, this high speed force repeatedly placed on the elbow can take a toll.

Often beginning with Little Leaguer’s Elbow, a condition affecting young pitchers who do not allow adequate rest between pitches, a baseball player’s elbow joint absorbs a tremendous amount of repetitive stress over the seasons.  The impact of this type of overhead throwing irritates the tendons and ligaments supporting the elbow joint, predisposing pitchers to more serious problems.  One such injury is an Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) injury.

Once seen primarily in adult athletes, the dramatic increase in more serious overuse injuries like UCL damage, Flexor Tendinitis and Valgus Extension Overload (VEO) in young players prompted the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) and the USA Baseball, Little League Baseball and Major League Baseball organizations to establish Pitch Count Guidelines.

While these changes and educational efforts are expected to reduce the number of overuse injuries seen in young players, competitive league players remain at risk.

Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) Injury

Elbow Anatomy and UCL Injury

The Elbow Joint and location of the Ulnar Collateral Ligament

The ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) is among the most commonly injured ligament in throwing athletes.  To accommodate the high speed throwing motions, the ligament stretches and lengthens until it can no longer hold the elbow bones tightly enough. Severity of the injury can range from a sprain with minor damage and inflammation to a complete tear.

Symptoms Include:

baseball bullet

Pain on the inside of the elbow

baseball bulletA feeling of instability in the elbow

baseball bulletLoss of strength in throwing

baseball bulletIrritation of the ulnar nerve (funny bone) causing numbness in the small and ring fingers

Diagnosis and Treatment

A UCL injury is diagnosed based on the results of a physical examination, X-ray and MRI.  Depending on the severity of the damage, rest and refrain from play along with rehabilitative exercises and anti inflammatory medication may be indicated. Work with an athletic trainer may also be helpful, to assess throwing mechanics and improve body positioning which can reduce excessive stress on the elbow.

If there is a complete tear of the ligament and patients fail to improve with conservative treatment, surgery may be indicated.

The UCL reconstruction procedure, which was performed on former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tommy John and is more commonly known as Tommy John surgery today, has dramatically changed the outcome for athletes.  In fact, his results were so impressive, it is reported that young players not actually suffering from a UCL injury have sought Tommy John surgery in hope that it would improve their performance [1]!  The procedure, though, is performed only when necessary to repair a severely torn UCL.

Tommy John surgery is a surgical graft procedure in which the injured UCL is replaced with a tendon graft taken from the forearm or the hamstring tendons.  This procedure is followed by an intense rehabilitation program that lasts from six months to a year, depending on the position an athlete plays.  Throwing exercises can begin in about 16 weeks.

The Role Tommy John Continues to Play

In the medical community, Tommy John remains credited with the shift in how athletes view UCL injuries. Once career ending, today UCL reconstruction has become a common procedure – returning most athletes to their sport at a pre injury level of play.

In the sports world, Tommy John is still revered for the excellent athlete he was, choosing baseball as his sport of choice and playing in all three of the Yankees vs Dodgers World Series in his era (1977, 1978 and 1981).

Undergoing the procedure in 1974 and spending his entire 1975 season in recovery, he learned to pitch in a way that relieved the stress he was placing on his arm and leg.  He returned to the Dodgers in 1976. His 10-10 record that year was considered “miraculous.”  But, he went on to pitch until 1989 winning 164 games after his surgery – just one game shy of baseball great Sandy Koufax.

The recognition he received for his unexpected success following the procedure now donning his name became the launching pad for other endeavors benefiting young baseball players.

His “Let’s Do It” foundation, which umbrellas the Tommy John Pitching Academy, is today dedicated to research in preventing such injuries and teaching pitching techniques that minimize the physical impact. The foundation also supports the efforts of the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) and its collaborators’ STOP Sports Injuries Campaign as well as the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention (AFSP).  AFSP and its outreach effort is an important component in the foundation’s efforts in memory of his son.

 References

  1. Longman, Jere. Fit young pitchers see elbow repair as cure-all. 2007 Jul.

 

 

Pitcher’s Elbow

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Today’s youth sports are more demanding than ever.  Seasons are longer and the practice and game schedule is intense.  Though with proper training and the ability to understand what pain may be signaling, a career ending injury can be avoided.

One of the more common overuse sports injuries we see affects the elbow and is known as Pitcher’s Elbow.

Throwing a baseball, particularly repeatedly as a pitcher does, puts a tremendous amount of stress on the inside of the elbow.  This stress is concentrated on a ligament known as the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL).

Lateral Collateral Ligament / Ulnar Collateral Ligament

When there is pain on the inside of the elbow it may mean that the ligament has either been stretched or has micro-tears.  The goal is to avoid throwing to the point of such pain, as it may indicate that the damage is already done!

There are many factors that can lead to the injury of a young player’s elbow ligament.  The main problem is throwing too much.  Often times this player is young, talented and needed in much of the game in order for the team to win.  The player then gets “overplayed,” until the elbow pain prevents further throwing.  The team must then find another pitcher and the cycle repeats.

Below are some suggestions that will hopefully help young pitchers – enabling them to mature and develop their full potential before an injury cuts their season short:

1. Pitch Count

The definitive pitch count guideline generally adopted comes from the 1996 American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) study.  This guideline includes maximum pitches per day, and days of rest between pitching.  Below are websites that include more information on this.

2. All Season Baseball

As our youth become more competitive, they begin to play year round.  This includes spring…..and now also summer and fall.  The elbow never gets a chance to rest and re-strengthen.  Ideally, the young athlete would pursue a different sport during the off-season – engaging different muscles, ligaments and tendons.  If baseball is the only sport, the pitcher must limit the amount of pitching during the off-season and work on some of the other influencing factors listed below.

 3. Pitching Mechanics

The mechanics of pitching are often left to the weekend warrior coach.  It may be worthwhile to find a professional pitching coach who can not only see the subtle corrections that need to be made, but also find a way to help the player make these adjustments as they throw at ever increasing velocity.  Consider that the player is developing as he gets older.  This means that the lessons from last year may no longer apply.  Players are not only getting taller, but developing more muscle.  This will impact their pitching mechanics.  A player should be re-evaluated every year or two.

 4. The Shoulder

Pitching is a rotation sport!  The windup starts in the body and gets transmitted to the hand via the shoulder and elbow.  If the shoulder is weak, the elbow must compensate.  This leads to injury.  It is important to strengthen the shoulder, chest and back in order to support this movement.  Specifically, it is important to strengthen the shoulder muscles that rotate the shoulder called the rotator cuff.  It is also important to strengthen the muscles that control the shoulder blade (scapula).  Young players have open growth plates in their bones, and injury to these growth plates are avoided by keeping the weight low.  The goal is not to build bulk but rather to build strength and stamina.  Weight training is best done in the off-season.   Smaller muscles like the rotator cuff can be exercised two or three times per week.  More than three times a week will weaken and not strengthen these muscles.  Finally, it is important to stretch the shoulder joint, especially the posterior capsule.  This is done by bringing the arm across the body and feeling the stretch on the back of the shoulder.

5. Fatigue

There is a difference between strength and fatigue.  As the game progresses, the muscles become fatigued.  The player, in their effort to maintain speed, start to use other muscles and change their throwing mechanics.  This then leads to increased strain on the elbow and ultimately to injury.  This may be avoided by strengthening the upper muscles in the off-season and by watching the pitch count during the season.

6. Addressing an already painful elbow

Pain in the elbow could indicate that the elbow is injured.  The first step is to stop playing baseball and seek the assessment of an orthopedic specialist.

–  Once pain is resolved and the tenderness is completely gone, initiate a strengthening program focusing on muscles of the chest, back and shoulders

– After the strengthening program is well on its way, the player should seek an evaluation by a professional pitching coach.

-Gradually the player will increase pitching distance and speed – with particular focus on proper mechanics

– After completing these steps, players can return to the regular season.

Typically, once a player has elbow pain they generally require about six months to complete the steps above.  Since the pain often occurs at the start or middle of a pitching season, this usually means that they will lose out on the remainder of that season.  Though, this is preferable to permanently damaging the arm and eliminating any chance of playing another season.

Helpful Websites:

www.qcbaseball.com

www.WebBall.com

www.littleleague.org   (pitch count regulation)

www.pitchsmarter.com