STAMFORD, Conn. -- The increasing number of Tommy John surgeries, named after former Major League Baseball pitcher Tommy John whose ulnar collateral ligament -- or UCL -- reconstruction enabled a long and successful career, has led some to call these surgeries an epidemic.
While the surgery has demonstrated great success, 10 to 30 percent of athletes who undergo this surgery never return to their former level of play. In fact, the most effective treatment is prevention, as UCL injuries are tied to overuse. Many adolescents today focus on a single sport year round. This unremitting stress on the throwing shoulder and elbow can increase the risk of injury.
Keeping track of innings and pitch counts can help curb overuse before an injury occurs. It is not uncommon for kids to play on several teams with overlapping seasons, which can result in inadequate throwing rest. "The injury risk becomes 3.5 times greater if a player pitches more than 100 innings in 12 months and grows five-fold if a pitcher throws for eight consecutive months," said Dr. Samuel Taylor a sports medicine surgeon at Hospital for Special Surgery. "All innings and pitches should be counted and tracked."
Dialing up for the radar gun can also bring about arm injuries. "Forced attempts to hit higher than normal velocity may result in poor throwing mechanics and fatigue which correlate with increased risk of UCL injury," explained Dr. Taylor.
Communication is just as critical for young players. Comprehensive care of the throwing athlete demands open lines of communication among players, parents, coaches and trainers to ensure that pitchers are not intentionally or unintentionally overused.
Lastly, Dr. Taylor stresses to listen to your child. "Shoulder and elbow pain is not normal in the adolescent athlete," he said. "They should not take anti-inflammatory medications to push through the pain to play. Such symptoms should be taken seriously and prompt the need for further evaluation."
Dr. Samuel Taylor is a sports medicine surgeon at Hospital for Special Surgery, specializing in minimally invasive and reconstructive techniques of the shoulder, elbow, and knee. He practices in both the HSS Outpatient Center in Stamford and the hospital’s main campus in New York.