Think of a pitcher in the World Series. Throughout one baseball game, how many times do you see him raise his arm high in the air to hurl a ball towards a batter?
Pitchers are what are known as overhead athletes — athletes that place demands on their shoulder while it is lifted high and using great force.
Overhead athletes pose a unique problem to medical professionals because of the complex biomechanics involved; particularly young athletes who are becoming single sport athletes at an earlier age.
Recent research suggests that early specialization of one sport – particularly overhead sports — put the athlete at an increased risk of injury. Arm and shoulder pain are a common complaint for coaches and parents of these athletes. While sometimes benign, complaints of arm and shoulder pain in a young athlete should warrant evaluation if symptoms persist or are affecting his or her play or sports performance.
Here are some basic recommendations for the overhead athlete:
- Arm and shoulder pain in a thrower should be taken seriously. If symptoms persist for more than a few days, are recurrent, or cause the athlete to modify or miss activity, then a medical professional should evaluate them.
- Adhere to pitch counts. Pitch counts are widely available for review and should be followed strictly. Littleleague.org and the American Sports Medicine Institute have clear guidelines available to the public.
- Be cautious regarding early sport specialization. Many parents and athletes feel they are gaining a competitive edge when they play a single sport year round. While there are certainly circumstances in which this is appropriate, recent research shows these athletes are at a higher risk of burnout and injury. Outside of a few specialty sports (gymnastics, figure skating, swimming/diving), there is little evidence to suggest that early specialization is advantageous. A UCLA sports specialization study surveying 296 NCAA Division I male and female athletes found that 88 percent participated in an average of two to three sports as children, and 70 percent did not specialize in one sport until after the age of 12. In a similar study of Olympians in Germany, results found that on average, the Olympians had participated in two other sports during childhood before or parallel to their main sport. Both studies support the concept of sports diversification in adolescence—not specialization.
- Watch the mechanics! Regardless of pitch counts, if you notice a pitcher is becoming fatigued – take them out. Injuries are most likely to occur when the mechanics break down and the kinetic chain breaks down. “Falling off the mound” is a common indicator that the thrower may be starting to fatigue.
- Prepare. There is evidence that suggests that a pre-season training program may reduce injuries. Proper neuro-muscular training before an intensive season should be considered. There are sports performance and sports injury programs available through Spartanburg Regional’s Sports Medicine program.
If you are concerned about an athlete or child, then please have them seen by a medical professional with expertise in sports medicine. Appointments with Dr. Lucas are available at the Spartanburg Regional Sports Medicine Institute, located at the Upward Star Center in Spartanburg. Call 864-560-BONE to make an appointment.