By Drew Williams
Former Georgetown Little League Head Coach Dave Anderson said it’s tough being a coach and a parent of baseball players. Anderson has three boys who all play baseball and his youngest plays travel baseball.
“Yeah, I really worry about my kids every time they go out there,” Anderson said. “I just do my best to try to not to think about it.”
“I do my best to keep my kids away from pitching for the very reason they might get injured.”
Anderson isn’t alone in his fears of allowing his children to pitch. Baseball has been dealing with a specific type of injury synonymous with its sport, especially now on the youth level.
Tommy John surgery is becoming more common in youth athletics across the country.
According to the American Sports Medicine Institute, zero percent of Tommy John surgeries were performed on youth and high schoolers in 1994. In 2011 that number jumped to 23 percent of surgeries being performed on youth and high schoolers.
Tommy John surgery, also known as ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction, was first performed by Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974. The procedure takes place after the UCL ligament in the elbow has been damaged beyond repair and is replaced by grafting a tendon from elsewhere in the body.
Why are more youth undergoing this surgery?
Injuries of the UCL have increased throughout youth sports in the United States, especially among baseball and softball players. A study done by the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine concluded that in the years 2007-11, 56.7 percent of Tommy John surgeries performed in that period were completed on children ages 15-19.
The rate the surgery is performed has left some people wondering why that number went from a zero percent rate to 23 percent.
Head Athletic Trainer at Salisbury University Pat Lamboni said that one of the reasons is from young athletes overusing their arms and specializing in only one specific sport in hopes of getting big scholarships for college. Lamboni said that physicians and parents are also a potential culprit.
“We have physicians vying for more patients and are more willing to perform the surgery at a higher rate,” Lamboni said. “Parents are also very impatient thinking this surgery is an easy and quick fix to the child’s problem.”
Some parents feel that in order to get their children in the major leagues, practice and specialization in one sport are key. Others believe these principals are hurting athletes in the future.
Salisbury University Head Baseball Coach Troy Brohawn said that travel ball is taking its toll on kids especially since they can play all year. Brohawn also said that the one sport specialization is really a reason kids are having injuries later in their lives.
“I’m a firm believer that playing other sports can help kids relate to the one sport they love,” Brohawn said. “But one sport where kids get more playing time can get taxing on these guys.”
When young pitchers reach the point of elbow pain, there are multiple choices, including whether to have Tommy John surgery or to give rehabilitation a try.
Salisbury University Associate Professor of Sports Science Dr. Brent Fedorko said that electing to have the surgery or not has many contributing factors and depends entirely on the extent of the tear in the elbow. Fedorko said that there are many different types of rehab that can be done to help with injured youth.
“Conservative rehab is typically what is tried first in these cases,” Fedorko said. “If that fails and the elbow remains unstable and painful, that a lot of times will lead to people electing to have this Tommy John surgery.”
Others tend to disagree with this stance.
Lamboni said that there is a societal change of people wanting to get back on the diamond as quick as possible. Because of this, many people tend to ignore rehabilitation and elect for the surgery as a quick fix.
“Most of the time when people claim to have elbow injuries, it really is shoulder related,” Lamboni said. “Instead of rehab, people go for the surgery only to find out their shoulder was the real problem.”
What can kids and parents do to prevent injuries?
With injuries growing by the year, many parents are left wondering if they should continue to let their children play sports.
Pitch Smart, a program run by USA Baseball, has training available for coaches and a pitch count number in place to protect kids. The number of pitches thrown by the child also dictates how many days they must rest before they pitch again.
Some professionals believe that implementing programs such as these can help youth in the future.
Fedorko said it’s nice people are recognizing the need to save young arms.
“People believe we are seeing a lot of injuries because of lack of rest,” Fedorko said. “Fortunately, in kid’s sports we are seeing certain things to protect the children such as pitch counts and taking time off, so hopefully these things will lessen these injuries in groups of kids.”
Some other professionals think about injuries from a different perspective.
Brohawn said throwing breaking pitches in Little League is not a wise idea since it can cause damage to elbows but also believes the threat of injury cannot be eliminated entirely.
“Look, your arm’s going to go when it wants to go,” Brohawn said. “You can’t change that.”