DANVILLE -- With the Little League World Series approaching, some of the world's most talented young baseball players will be breaking off curveballs and toeing the mound several times throughout the 10-day tournament. But doctors warn that these advanced pitching practices are not recommended for most children of Little League age.
"It is very common to see children between the ages of 9 and 12 present with what we call Little League elbow. This is a painful widening of the elbow's growth center that results in the enlargement of part of the elbow bone," said Dean Harter, M.D., orthopedic surgeon, Geisinger Medical Center. "For the most part, these injuries can be prevented simply by monitoring how often a child throws a baseball and what pitches are being thrown."
According to Dr. Harter, throwing breaking pitches -- such as sliders and curveballs -- puts excessive stress on a young ballplayer's elbow, leading to extreme elbow pain. Dr. Harter's recommendations for preventing Little League elbow include throwing a ball no more than 80 times twice a week and throwing changeups instead of curveballs or sliders. Advanced breaking pitches should be reserved for when the child's body is physically mature enough to handle the added stress on the elbow.
"By the time a young baseball player presents with Little League elbow, it is often too late to salvage much of his or her season," Dr. Harter said. "Recovery times for this injury can take as long as two months, in most cases sidelining a child until the fall. Little League Elbow rarely requires surgery, but with proper rest, stretching and physical therapy patients will experience a full recovery."
Dr. Harter warns, however, that if elbow pain from poor mechanics and throwing advanced breaking pitches is not diagnosed and treated, it can lead to more severe elbow injuries during teenage and young adult years -- injuries that could require surgery and potentially end an athlete's playing career.
"Education is the most effective way parents and coaches can prevent this injury," said Dr. Harter. "If parents and coaches restrict the number of pitches and/or throws young athletes make, the risk is significantly decreased. Parents can also check with a physician to see if their youngster is physically mature enough to begin throwing pitches that are more taxing on the elbow."
Current Little League rules limit 11- to 12-year-olds to 85 pitches in a day. The rules also mandate at least four days of rest after throwing 66 or more pitches, three days of rest after throwing 51 to 65 pitches, two days of downtime after throwing 36 to 50 pitches and one day of recuperation after throwing 21 to 35 pitches.