We can do all the strength training, mobility work, and soft tissue treatments in the world and it won’t matter if they’re overused – because I’m just not smart enough to have figured out how to go back in time and change history. Worried about whether they’re throwing curveballs, or if their mechanics are perfect? It won’t matter if they’ve already accumulated too many innings.
While athletes might be playing with fire each time they throw, the pain presentation pattern is different. You burn your hand, and you know instantly. Pitching injuries take time to come about. Maybe you do microscopic damage to your ulnar collateral ligament each time you throw – and then come back and pitch again before it’s had time to fully regenerate. Or, maybe you ignore the shoulder internal rotation deficit and scapular dyskinesis you’ve got and it gets worse and worse for years – until you’re finally on the surgeon’s table for a labral and/or rotator cuff repair. These issues might be managed conservatively if painful during the teenage years (or go undetected if no pain is present) – but once a kid hits age 18 or 19, it seems to automatically become “socially acceptable” to do an elbow or shoulder surgery.
Sure enough, just yesterday, reader Paul Vajdic sent me this article from the Shreveport Times. The author interviews world-renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews about the crazy increase in the number of Tommy John surgeries he’d performed over the past decade.
A comment he made really jumped out at me, in light of my point from above:
“”I had a kid come in, a 15-year-old from Boca Raton, (Fla.), who tore his ligament completely in two,’ Andrews said. ‘The interesting thing is when I X-rayed his elbow with good magnification, he has a little calcification right where the ligament attaches to the bone. We’re seeing more of that now. He actually got hurt with a minor pull of the ligament when he was 10, 11, 12 years of age. That little calcification gets bigger and, initially, it won’t look like anything but a sore elbow. As that matures, it becomes more prominent. It turns into an English pea-size bone piece and pulls part of the ligament off when they’re young.'”
In other words, it takes repeated bouts of microtrauma over the course of many years to bring an athlete to threshold – even if they have little to no symptoms along the way. Injury prevention starts at the youngest ages; otherwise, you’re just playing from behind the 8-ball when you start training high school and college players.
In addition to walking away with the perspective that young kids need to be strictly managed with their pitch counts, I hope this makes you appreciate the value of strength and conditioning programs at young ages, too. For more information, check out my post, The Truth About Strength Training for Kids.