Overuse injuries can plague athletes of all ages and sizes, and youth softball and baseball competitors are no exception, a CHOC Children’s sports medicine specialist says. Two of the most common injuries that affect youth competing in either of these sports are commonly referred to as ‘Little League Shoulder’ and ‘Little League Elbow,’ says Dr. Jonathan Minor, a CHOC pediatrician who specializes in sports injuries, injury prevention, and concussion management.
‘Little League shoulder’ is a fracture of the growth plate in the shoulder. A warning sign is often pain that comes with throwing, without any preexisting injury. ‘Little League elbow’ is a small growth plate injury on the inside part of the elbow. Many will eventually hear or feel a ‘pop’ on the inside of the elbow, which often is a small piece of bone being pulled away from the elbow, at which time you should seek medical evaluation urgently, says Minor.
With either injury, pain tends to be gradual. Initially the shoulder or elbow may feel sore after games for players in heavy throwing positions such as pitchers, catchers or outfielders. For example, for pitchers, the shoulder or elbow may feel sore after pitching, but often after one to two weeks of continued throwing, they may experience pain during the game as well.
“Forty percent of the speed of the ball comes from the arm and shoulder, and the rest comes from the core, legs and hips,” says Minor. “Proper form is essential to preventing injuries. This also means that having strong lower body and core muscles, not just a strong upper body, is imperative. Working with a throwing mechanics coach can be very helpful at utilizing each of these different muscle groups.”
Other preventative measures include adhering to the sporting organization’s rules for pitch counts and rest requirements between pitching appearances. Athletes also should not be allowed to switch from one heavy-throwing position to another during the game, such as playing catcher after pitching for several innings. Remind your child to do a proper warm-up and cool down before and after practices and games. Consider loosening up arm muscles with a heating pad prior to practice, as tight muscles are more prone to injury.
Athletes at this age are developing their skills as well as their sense of competitiveness, but that doesn’t mean they should be playing through the pain, he adds.
Leagues often encourage players to recognize when and where their pain occurs. Consult a physical therapist or athletic trainer initially, and if basic treatments like rest, ice, and basic medication such as ibuprofen, are not helping, ask your pediatrician about a referral to a sports medicine specialist.
Since a major contributing factor to these all-too-common injuries include throwing mechanics, Minor often recommends athletes work with a physical therapy program that has experience with athletes in their chosen sport, in order to work on proper form.
Recommendations for treatment are made on a case-by-case basis says Minor, but may include rest, X-rays or other imaging, or changing positions in the game to a position less strenuous to their injury.
Since these pains are often gradual, they may get more severe as the season progresses. As playoffs commence, athletes may fear that speaking up about an injury could prevent them from participating, or result in other consequences. Encourage your young athlete to be honest about how they’re feeling, since identifying an injury and seeking treatment sooner rather than later, can allow them to return to competition earlier.
“Southern California is such a great place to live- the weather is very conducive to playing baseball and softball for twelve months out of the year. But every athlete, especially ones who throw often, should have a few months off per year to prevent overuse injuries. Try playing another sport that doesn’t involve throwing, or focus on conditioning work, particularly hips, legs and core that all too often get neglected during the season,” says Minor.
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