Year-round sports leagues lead to more frequent injuries

May 30, 2014


Year-round sports leagues lead to more frequent injuries

It is sometimes difficult to codify the ways that children's bodies develop during adolescence, but common knowledge says that teenagers need equal periods of activity and rest. The stress of sports can induce their bodies to grow more muscle and increase its flexibility, and off-periods give them the time to repair the structures that may have broken down during physical activity.

However, year-round sports have become so popular in recent years that children no longer have these off-periods for their bodies to recuperate. According to a recent literature review conducted by Jeremy Bruce, M.D., an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine at the University of Tennessee's College of Medicine, and published in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, injuries that once exclusively affected professional baseball athletes are now being seen in children who play year-round leagues. 

Overusing young arms
One of the most common baseball injuries occurs to the ulnar collateral ligament, a structure that stabilizes the elbow joint. Excessive pitching can cause the ligament to become distended or more severely injured, which can lead to pain and a severe drop-off in throwing accuracy and power.

While UCL injuries once only affected professional athletes who pitched upwards of 40 games per year and at higher pitch counts than youth athletes, Bruce found that the prevalence of year-round baseball leagues has led to a preponderance of UCL injuries in young athletes.

"Despite all our efforts to educate youth athletes, parents and coaches, the trend of UCL injuries continues to be on the rise," Bruce said in a statement. 

Bruce explained that UCL tears can be easily and quickly repaired with a reconstructive surgery popularly known as Tommy John surgery. However, the medical establishment has become so efficient at performing this procedure that some parents may believe that, if their children do happen to injure their UCLs, medical intervention can solve all their problems.

"The success we've had in improving our techniques and outcomes with UCL reconstruction may be adding to our problems in preventing the injuries," Bruce said. "The belief that some have about UCL reconstruction being a safe, simple way to improve one's ability to throw is a great misconception that may be adding to our epidemic."

In fact, a study on the effectiveness of the procedure found that, while UCL reconstruction surgery alleviates pain and repairs the mobility of a pitchers' elbows, athletes also experience a decrease in performance.

The study discovered that, in a statistical analysis of 168 Major League Baseball pitchers before and after undergoing UCL reconstruction, several performance metrics worsened. For example, pitchers' earned run average increased from 4.15 to 4.74, walks plus hits per inning pitched rose from 1.4 to 1.48 and overall innings pitched decreased from 59 to 50.

UCL reconstruction at a young age may produce an even larger reduction in pitching performance, Bruce explained, which means that parents and children alike should be wary about overworking young arms before they have developed enough to handle such intense strain.

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