This week, Tommy John Surgery is the third injury in a 5-part series on youth sports injuries, sponsored by the UHealth Sports Medicine Institute, part of the University of Miami health system. UHealth is paying me for these posts because they believe strongly in the importance of a safe youth sports experience for every young athlete.
If you’ve heard of Tommy John surgery, you may have never thought it would affect your child. But if your child is a baseball pitcher, please keep reading. This is an important post for you!
The fact is that for many kids, baseball has grown from a season to a year-round sport. More and more kids are playing throughout the year as middle and high school ball extends into travel ball and then expands to show cases, private coaches, and offseason training.
The most common injuries for baseball players happen in the shoulders and elbows, and the No. 1 cause of those injuries is players making too many throws in too little time.
If your child’s arm is tired, feels heavy or sore, he shouldn’t be pitching.
Dr. Lee Kaplan, Director of the Sports Medicine Institute at the University of Miami Health System says that the problem is that athletes “have been playing too hard, too often, and even learning adult pitches that their bodies are not yet ready for.” And thus the rise in Tommy John Surguries.
Tommy John Factors
Other factors include:
- lack of rest
- pitching while fatigued
- poor mechanics
- playing catcher when not pitching
- playing on multiple teams at the same time
- pitching multiple days in a row and throwing at maximum effort.
Tommy John Recovery
For most cases, Tommy John surgery has a high rate of return to play. Most studies conclude that 70-80% of pitchers return to their previous level of competition following surgery assuming that they follow proper rehab. Of course, the rate of recovery and time of return to play varies according to the athlete.
Tommy John Precursor
Another thing to watch out for is “Little League elbow,” the painful precursor to the condition that leads to Tommy John surgery. Little League elbow is caused by repetitive throwing, which can increase stress to the growth plate in the elbow. The result is inflammation and in some instances, the growth plate can separate from the bone. When that happens, surgery may be needed.
Avoiding Elbow Injuries
Here’s some ways that medical experts suggest you can prevent your child from having to go through Tommy John surgery.
- Watch for signs of fatigue. If your young pitcher says his arm is sore or tired, let him rest from pitching and throwing.
- Follow limits for pitch counts and rest days set forth by the Medical Baseball Safety Advisory Committee for pitch counts.
- Don’t let a child be pitcher and catcher for his team. Too many throws means increased chance of injury.
- No overhead throwing of any kind for at least 2 to 3 months per year (4 months is preferred). No competitive baseball pitching for at least 4 months per year.
- Don’t let your child pitch more than 100 innings in games in any calendar year.
- Don’t let your child pitch on multiple teams with overlapping seasons.
- Be sure your child is learning good throwing mechanics.
- Your child should not pitch back-to-back games or multiple games in the same day.
- Avoid pitching sliders and curve balls should until after the age of 14.
- Encourage players to play other sports so that their bodies will develop other muscle groups that may aid in preventing baseball injuries.
Obviously, following these guidelines doesn’t guarantee that your child will not get injured. But these suggestions are based on growing evidence that too much throwing can hurt your young athlete.
The Bigger Picture
I talk a lot about looking at the bigger picture of youth sports, as it pertains to character development. But I think that seeing the bigger picture also comes into play when it comes to things like Tommy John surgery. If your child loves pitching and wants to pitch for many years, then the best way you can help them as they work towards that goal is to look past today.
Today, you may say, my child has to keep pitching all year so he won’t get rusty, or my child has to pitch these back-to-back games or we may lose the championship.
But if you and your child are thinking long-term, then following guidelines to prevent elbow injury will give your child a greater chance at reaching his goal. Injuries from overuse are a result of too many parents thinking of only today.