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Keeping Young Arms Healthy

Keeping Young Arms Healthy

While baseball is not traditionally considered a dangerous sport, there has been an increase of elbow and shoulder injuries among young pitchers. Throwing a baseball too many times and too often, along with throwing the wrong types of pitches can predispose a child-athlete to various types of arm injuries.

“If young athletes don’t take steps to prevent elbow and shoulder injuries from occurring, their season may end prematurely,” said D.J. Phillips, MD, director, Reconstructive and Arthroscopic Shoulder Surgery, Allegheny General Hospital, and team physician, Pittsburgh Pirates. “Even worse, these kids could have musculoskeletal problems for years.”

So what can young athletes, their parents and coaches do to prevent season-ending injuries? Here are some tips for keeping young arms healthy.

First, young athletes should cross-train by playing a variety of sports. Even if they are “scholarship material” or determined to become a major leaguer, the strength, agility, endurance and skills learned from soccer, basketball or other sports may transfer back to baseball and can help prevent overuse injuries.

In addition, younger players should develop a program to stretch and strengthen the throwing arm during the preseason, as well as during the regular season. It’s also important for them to stretch and ice their arm after pitching.

Ideally, kids should get plenty of exercise before the season begins and be in the best shape possible before throwing or swinging a bat for the first time. This will not only lower the risk of injury, but it will also make them better ballplayers.

Different players have different preferences when it comes to warming up their arms. Some like to make short throws, while others prefer to start with long, easy tosses. Regardless of how a player chooses to warm up, the idea is to start with soft throws meant to stretch muscles and loosen up joints. As the arm warms up, the intensity of throws should be gradually increased until the player is throwing as he or she would during a game situation.

Pitching puts an enormous amount of strain on joints and tendons, particularly for young arms that are still growing. Injuries to wrists, elbows, shoulder rotator cuffs, ligaments and tendons can result from excessive pitching but can be largely avoided if players and coaches follow a few simple guidelines:

Make sure pitchers adhere to league rules regarding the maximum number of innings they are allowed to throw. This will generally range from 4 to 10 innings per week. If a kid plays for more than one team, include all innings pitched each week, not just the ones for each team.

Most leagues follow rules regarding the number of pitches kids can throw in a game. Keep in mind that even major league pitchers have strict pitch counts to keep their arms healthy. Here are the pitch count limits recommended by the U.S.A. Little League and the American Sports Medicine Institute: 

  • 7-8 years old: 50 pitches a day or 75 pitches a week
  • 9-10 years old: 75 pitches a day or 100 pitches a week
  • 11-12 years old: 85 pitches a day or 115 pitches a week
  • 13-16 years old: 95 pitches a day
  • 17-18 years old: 105 pitches a day

 Pitchers under 14 should limit total pitches to less than 1,000 per season and 3,000 per year.
All players should take at least three months off per year from overhead sports (i.e., sports that involve a lot of overhead arm movements like baseball or volleyball).

If pitchers feel persistent pain in their throwing arm, they should not be allowed to pitch again until the pain goes away.

A bit of knowledge, some good sense and adherence to simple guidelines can help protect the health of a young, throwing athlete. To be referred to a sports medicine specialist at Allegheny General Hospital, call 412.DOCTORS (412.362.8677).

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