Young Pitchers Prone To Injury

Updated Monday November 25, 2013 by David Schittler.

Originally published June 2008

Young pitchers prone to injury

Baseball isn't considered dangerous for kids, but it can be, especially on the mound

By Phil Galewitz Special for USA TODAY 

Petr Vaneck was throwing a 90-mph splitter as a 16-year-old. A star for his Czech Republic high school team, he had planned to show off his skills as an exchange student in the USA this year. Instead, Vaneck tore his rotator cuff, an arm injury that has derailed his hopes. "I could not move my arm," says Vaneck, who is living in Fullerton, Calif., this year.

Baseball is not usually considered a dangerous sport for young people akin to football or hockey, but it does carry health risks, particularly for pitchers. Doctors nationwide are reporting a growing number of young pitchers, some as young as 12, with serious arm injuries. Though most improve with rest and rehabilitation, some need surgery.

But it's not just baseball careers that are threatened. Injuries to growth plates in the elbow or rotator cuffs in the shoulder can leave permanent damage than can reduce arm function or lead to arthritis, says Howard Moore, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. Located at each end of a bone, growth plates are the weakest sections of the skeleton — even weaker than the surrounding ligaments and tendons. The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that act to stabilize the shoulder.

"Throwing a baseball is a very violent motion," says Chad Ross, an assistant coach with the baseball team at Chabot College in Hayward, Calif. "Many young kids are out there just seeing how hard they can throw, and that leads to injuries."

Among the reasons for the increase in injuries are athletes' throwing too many pitches, poor mechanics, throwing curveballs at too early an age and pitching in pain, Moore says.

Moore preaches conditioning before young people get ready to pitch. "Conditioning is not just throwing, but is strengthening the whole body, including legs, back and torso," he says.

Vaneck attributes his troubles to alternating between pitcher and catcher, which led to him throwing on every play. "I never thought about getting injured. I just like playing."

Increasingly, high school athletes and younger are facing a major operation developed for professional players: "Tommy John surgery," in which a torn elbow ligament is replaced with a wrist or leg tendon. The operation is named after the former major league pitcher who first underwent the procedure in 1974. One of the nation's leading sports medicine specialists, James Andrews of Birmingham, Ala., performed nine of the operations on high school players from 1995 to 1998. He did 61 from 1999 to 2002 and 148 from 2003 to 2006.

Michael Maloney, director of sports medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, says parents and coaches can't expect teens to tell them when their arms are tired, and they need to limit players' pitches during practice and in games. "Kids are ashamed if they don't throw through pain or have to take time off due to injury."

Throwing too many pitches in one game is one of the most common causes of injury, Maloney says. A study by the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham showed that young pitchers who play more than eight months of baseball in a year are five times as likely to need surgery later as those who pitch 5½ months a year. Maloney says it is vital that young athletes take at least three months off from throwing each year to rest their arms.

Though the possible harm of throwing curveballs has not been proved, most experts, including Gatlin, say athletes should not start throwing them until they reach age 14 or 15. The motion exerts too much pressure on the elbow, he says.

young pitchers prone to injury.docx

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