When you strap pads and a helmet onto your child before they run out onto the playing field, you feel assured that the equipment will protect them from any injuries. But, with the upcoming Little League World Series, we're reminded that not all injuries can happen in an instant during a game - some take time to develop.
"Kids are young and agile, so we don't think they're at risk of overuse injuries, but, in fact, they are," said Daniel Feldmann, MD, Division Chief, Sports Medicine at Geisinger Medical Center. According to Safe Kids USA, overuse injuries are responsible for nearly half of all sports injuries to middle and high school students.
While young athletes can suffer a wide variety of injuries, elbow and shoulder injuries in children are near epidemic levels; each year, thousands of children complain about elbow or shoulder pain.
"Damage or tears to the ulnar collateral ligament, or UCL, is the most common injury, often caused by pitchers throwing too much. This ligament is the main stabilizer of your elbow for the motions associated with throwing a pitch," Dr. Feldmann said, adding that damage to this ligament can be difficult to repair and rehabilitate.
"If a young baseball or softball player is throwing too hard, too much and too early, without rest, they may be at risk of a serious elbow or shoulder injury," Dr. Feldmann said.
If your youth athlete ever complains of shoulder or elbow pain the day after throwing pitches, or if movement of the joint is painful or feels restricted compared to their other side, you should take them to a doctor familiar with sports injuries right away.
Typically, the first course of treatment for overuse is rest, especially from the activity that led to the injury. Sometimes ice is used to reduce inflammation and soreness, along with ibuprofen for pain.
"If overuse symptoms persist after rest, you should take your child to a doctor, especially if there's a lack of full-joint motion," Dr. Feldmann said. Sometimes rest won't be enough because, although it allows symptoms to subside, it also creates a loss of muscle bulk, tone, flexibility and endurance. But once the pain is gone and your child is able to move their join through its full motion, they can start a throwing rehab program.
"Treatment for overuse injuries is key for youth athletes - not treating them can cause deformity of the limb and disability since they are still growing," Dr. Feldmann said.
While overuse injuries are serious and on the rise, it's important to note that they are preventable.
"One of the most important things your child athlete can do is properly warming up, including stretching, running and easy, gradual throwing," Dr. Feldmann said.
Other preventative measures you can take include:
- Rotating into positions other than pitcher
- Not pitching on consecutive days
- Not playing baseball year round
- Adhering to pitch count guidelines established by Little League Baseball
- Not pitching on multiple teams with overlapping seasons
- Regularly communicating about how the arm is feeling and if there's any pain
- Not pitching with any elbow or shoulder pain