As summer draws near, little league baseball and softball teams are starting to form all across the country. Overuse injuries are increasingly common in young athletes, particularly those involved in throwing sports, including baseball. To help young athletes minimize injury this summer, Northwestern Medicine® sports medicine experts offer their advice on recognizing the symptoms of overuse injuries and knowing the importance of proper technique.
Overuse injuries develop slowly overtime because of repetitive stress on tendons, muscles, bones or joints. “These injuries are often hard to recognize because athletes dismiss the early signs as minor aches and pains, but when not treated properly overuse injuries run the risk of benching young athletes as well as causing long term damage and diminished quality of life,” explained Hany Elrashidy, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at Northwestern Medicine’s Glenview Outpatient Center. “Over-use injuries can occur at any age, but are especially common in young athletes who do a lot of repetitive pitching or throwing. Each pitch puts a huge force across the joints of the upper arm, placing these athletes at a greater risk of shoulder or elbow injury.”
Extensive throwing by a young athlete can damage the growth plates in the arm leading to a condition called Little Leaguer’s elbow or shoulder. This injury is caused when repetitive pitching creates excessive tension on the tendons and ligaments of the elbow or shoulder. If not treated, this increased strain can stress the soft tissue attachments to the bone, leading to abnormalities at the growth plate, small tears of ligaments, and even bony remodeling.
“If an athlete feels pain on the inside of the elbow, this can be a sign of little league elbow,” said Elrashidy. “If there is any difficulty executing any of the phases of normal throwing or symptoms such as locking or instability, the player should immediately discontinue activity and consult a physician.”
Little Leaguer’s shoulder or elbow can often be prevented with a proper stretching and conditioning program, an emphasis on proper technique, and making sure young athletes get sufficient rest. “It’s important that you learn proper conditioning exercises and throwing technique, especially during the months leading up to baseball season,” said Elrashidy. “For pitchers, who are particularly at risk for overuse injuries, limiting the number of pitches will help avoid injury. For most high school age students, the recommendation is fewer than 200 pitches per week. Young pitchers should also refrain from throwing more aggressive pitches, like a slider or curveball, until their arms are more developed.”
Parents and coaches should be familiar with the symptoms of overuse injuries which may include muscle aches and soreness, swelling in the joints, weakness, decreased speed, and pain with activity.
Overuse injuries are often easily treated if caught early. While it is important to consult a physician, in the majority of cases, the injury will resolve with rest, ice, and activity modification. Sometimes anti-inflammatory medications may be used to manage pain and inflammation. In chronic cases, physical therapy can be helpful and surgery is rarely required.
“Anytime that an overuse injury is suspected, taking a break from athletic activity should be the first step,” said Elrashidy. “I always remind my patients that it’s better to miss a few games instead of a whole season.”
Northwestern Medicine is the shared vision that joins Northwestern Memorial HealthCare and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in a collaborative effort to transform medicine through quality healthcare, academic excellence and scientific discovery.
To make an appointment at Northwestern Medicine’s Glenview Outpatient Center, call 847-724-GLEN (4536).