There’s A Lot We Don’t Know About Baseball and Softball Injuries

By Dev Mishra, M.D., President, Sideline Sports Doc, Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University

Key Points:

  • There are likely many factors involved in shoulder and elbow injuries for young throwers
  • The available data suggests that there are steps a young thrower can take now to minimize risk.
  • These steps include: play less than 8 months out of the year; play more than one sport; maintain shoulder motion as close to the non-throwing shoulder as possible; and improve lower extremity and core strength

I’m still thinking back on a recently published study of MRI abnormalities in young baseball players. I wrote about this in a blog post and noted that in this small study 100% of the players had an abnormal shoulder MRI scan if they were single sport athletes and played more than 8 months out of the year. Sure, a larger study will likely show a different percentage but it still should give us all reason to ask: why does this happen?  And why did 74% of young players report some arm pain during play in another study? Is this just the new normal, the physical price paid to play the sport? The data are compelling and a bit scary, but still it’s not easy to connect the dots and identify specific causes of problems. There’s a lot we still don’t know.

There is a lot of outstanding research taking place now, attempting to answer the question: “why”. We’ll likely find that there are several factors that can conspire together to create injury risk, loss of performance, and loss of sport enjoyment. I’d like to highlight a few excellent studies recently published in the journal Sports Health.

Here’s an excellent study that starts to define what the normal pitching motion should look like in a young pitcher. The authors defined ranges for the normal shoulder rotation and elbow load and found interestingly that loads are actually less for curveballs compared to fastballs, and yet current pitching recommendations suggest avoidance of curveballs until around age 14. The culprit may actually be abnormal lower extremity and trunk mechanics in the young pitcher. Possible solutions: lower extremity and core strength should be a conditioning focus for the young thrower.

In another study the authors did a retrospective analysis of previously published data and found that shoulder rotational deficits correlated with risk of shoulder and elbow injuries in early adulthood. These authors feel that with the onset of puberty and the accelerated growth in the young body, it seems that repetitive overhead activity leads to changes in bone shape. Once the young thrower is finished growing the continued repetitive stress in throwing is transmitted to the soft tissues. Possible solution: improve shoulder, elbow, and trunk range of motion with a program such as the Yokohama Baseball-9.Sideline Sports Doc Logo

These and other studies point to the fact that there are multiple factors involved in creating the recipe for upper extremity injury. There’s a lot we still don’t fully understand. But there are reasonable steps any young thrower can take right now to reduce injury risk and maximize sport performance and enjoyment. Play less than 8 months in a year and play more than one sport. Keep shoulder motion as close to the non-throwing shoulder as possible, and keep lower extremity and core strength up.

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