Throwing a baseball is the fastest known human movement. The speed of the throw from a professional baseball pitcher can be upwards of 7000 degrees per second. Now that’s fast! In addition to that, the shoulder is the most mobile joint in the human body. So what does this mean?
EXCESSIVE SPEED + EXCESSIVE MOBILITY = POTENTIAL PROBLEMS
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For those of you that “feel a need for speed”, you need to beware of the risks. In an article from the Journal of Sports Medicine, twenty-three professional pitchers were followed over three seasons. Those pitchers who were throwing at the highest maximum velocity suffered the highest incidence of elbow injuries. So how does that effect you? It is vitally important for the throwing athlete to understand the stresses that repetitive throwing places on young as well as mature joints. In the words of baseball trainer phenom Eric Cressey, “injuries occur when you ignore the things that need to be addressed, plain and simple.” In one of my previous blog posts, I talk about how it has been scientifically proven that strength training enhances athletic performance. Shoulders and elbows become problematic not only because of muscular weakness, but also from poor flexibility, poor tissue quality ie scar tissue and, of course, faulty mechanics.
For example, consider the dreaded inverted or upside down “W” exhibited by the Yankees’ Joba Chamberlain or the National’s Stephen Strasburg.
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Guess what happened to them? Yup….Tommy John surgery to fix a torn ligament in their elbows. So then…
EXCESSIVE SPEED + EXCESSIVE MOBILTY + BAD TECHNIQUE = DEFINITE PROBLEMS
Just because a joint is flexible does NOT mean that it is stable. Consider the six phases of throwing and all the potential areas of instability when throwing at maximum velocity. Our objective should be to achieve dynamic stability during ALL phases. Yes, if you are stiff we are going to stretch you and if you are loose we are going to stabilize you…but what about the gray areas? Every major league pitcher suffers from a loss of shoulder internal rotation for at least 3 days after an outing. This is a situation when you do NOT stretch. The resulting loss of motion is due to the micro-trauma of eccentric load during deceleration and needs time to heal. It has been shown that the posterior aspect (the back part) of the shoulder joint capsule actually thins out after repetitive throwing. So let me ask you, should we ever stretch the posterior aspect of the shoulder joint? Or should treatment focus more on the scar tissue that results in the decelerators?
So what are the most common upper extremity baseball throwing injuries? These injuries include the problems associated with overuse or improper training such as:
• Impingement syndrome
• Rotator cuff tendonitis
• Biceps tendonitis
• Medial elbow pain from flexor-pronator tendonitis
These overuse injuries can lead to more serious conditions such as:
• Rotator cuff tears
• Labral tears
• Ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tears
We have many manual tests that we can perform in the clinic to differentiate and determine what structures may be involved in YOUR specific case. In the case of impingement syndrome, I have previously posted a BLOG article on the different types of impingement syndrome as well as a VIDEO demonstrating the tests that we use to differentiate rotator cuff versus labral dysfunction. It should be noted that a condition called scapular dyskinesis can lead to impingement syndrome. This condition is characterized by an imbalance of scapular motion relative to shoulder motion. It is the result of weakness in the muscles that stabilize the scapula during the throwing motion. I have also listed some of the best, evidence-based exercises in a previous post for specific shoulder and scapular retraining.
It is very important for your therapist to differentiate between what we call active restraint or passive restraint structures. Active restraint structures are those things that contract and relax like your muscles and tendons. Passive restraint structures are things like ligaments ie UCL, cartilage ie labrum and meniscus, and discs ie intervertebral discs. I would like to highlight the UCL of the elbow as one example of this. For many pitchers, the first sign of impending trouble with the UCL is pain or stiffness in the flexors of the forearm. The flexors and pronators of the forearm are the active restraints and the UCL is the primary passive restraint to the extreme valgus forces that occur at the elbow during terminal cocking phase and early acceleration. Did you know that when the UCL is tested in isolation during cadaver studies that it only takes 32 newton/meters of force to rupture it? Guess how much valgus stress is on the inside part of the elbow during terminal cocking phase….64 newton/meters!! It has been shown that the UCL takes on 35 newton/meters of that force. Yikes!! So why doesn’t it rupture? It doesn’t rupture because the rest of that stress is controlled by the active restraints…your muscles in the forearm. You can probably guess what happens when you ignore your forearm muscles?
As mentioned earlier, imbalances in flexibility, tissue quality, biomechanics, or weakness can lead to stress on both active and passive restraints during the throwing motion. Invariably, the process of repetitive throwing leads to the development of scar tissue. There is a constant state of break-down and build-up that occurs during sport specific activity. I have blogged on problems with scar tissue and the debate on whether pain arises from tendonitis or not. I have also explained the benefits of the Graston Technique as a way to ensure that scar tissue does NOT inhibit your ability to throw.
Now, what blog post is complete without a little twist. After listing the most common injuries that we see in the throwing athlete, I would like to share a list of conditions that have been confirmed via MRI in athletes that have NO pain:
* 79% of overhead throwing athletes have labral tears
* 34% of athletes have rotator cuff tears
* 82% of athletes have disc herniations
Does this mean that you may ALREADY have a tear and that you are currently asymptomatic like the athletes in the previous studies? Yes, you may. Does this mean that your future hall of fame career is over? No, it doesn’t. Some practitioners are of the opinion that you may very well need a labral lesion to throw hard in the first place. The biggest challenge with this is ensuring that the throwing athlete develops all the things that we have talked about in this post:
• Dynamic stability
• Proper flexibility
• Maximum strength
• Proper tissue quality
• Proper throwing mechanics
It is ALL these reasons that make it vitally important to be as educated as you can about your shoulder mechanics and to be aware of the important role that training and physical therapy play in keeping you healthy.
Understanding throwing biomechanics in combination with a thorough knowledge of the anatomy and function of the shoulder and elbow is imperative to properly diagnose and treat the throwing athlete. Your prognosis for a healthy return to competition after arthroscopic surgery or ligament reconstruction has dramatically improved especially when you are in the right hands during recovery. My job as a physical therapist is not only to effectively rehabilitate your body after surgery but, more importantly, to help PREVENT the need for surgery in the first place. Of course, this is a two way street. I can only be your coach if you are a willing and motivated player.