A branch of study within the orthopedic discipline is sports medicine. Sports injuries affect all types of ages and athletes, and are common occurrences. Orthopedic surgeons who complete their training in sports medicine specialize in the treatment of athletes and those with other recreational orthopedic injuries.
Athletes can overextend themselves by participating in multiple sports simultaneously, playing on teams in overlapping seasons, or training excessively. Associated strenuous and repetitive motions, combined with inadequate rest periods, can cause painful, motion-inhibiting injuries to growing, and vulnerable, bodies. These injuries not only sideline athletes from the sports they love, but have the potential for long-term consequences if left untreated.
In throwing, high-impact, and contact sports like baseball, football, hockey, tennis, gymnastics, and wrestling, young athletes are particularly at-risk for shoulder or elbow problems. Dislocations, tears, fractures, and tendonitis are common traumatic and overuse injuries. It's important for athletes, parents, and coaches to know that noninvasive therapies and minimally invasive surgical options effectively resume activities, and conditioning and mechanics exercises can help prevent these injuries from happening in the first place.
As for the elbow, a common overuse injury in sports with repetitive overhand throwing is a UCL (Ulnar Collateral Ligament) tear. This ligament connects the bone of the upper arm (humerus) to a bone in the forearm (ulna). In cases where rest, ice, anti-inflammatories, and physical therapy aren't successful in treating the injury and eliminating pain, UCL reconstruction, also referred to as Tommy John surgery, is required. Another overuse injury of the elbow is Tennis Elbow, which is tendonitis or inflammation or irritation of the tendons, and can be treated with rest, anti-inflammatories, and physical therapy.
Before growth plates close, which happens around the ages of 12 to 14 in girls and 14 to 16 in boys, athletes are also susceptible to stress reactions like widening of or fractures to the growth plates in the shoulder or elbow. Occasionally, if repetitive stress continues, permanent damage to the growth plate could cause the bone or limb to prematurely stop growing and be shorter than the other limb. One example of this type of injury is Little Leaguer's Elbow, which is swelling or fracture of the growth plate in the elbow, caused by frequent throwing. Stress to growth plates requires rest, anti-inflammatories, and physical therapy to prevent permanent damage.
Appropriate protective gear, such as shoulder or elbow pads, can help prevent traumatic injuries. As for overuse injuries of the shoulder and elbow, young athletes can prevent injuries by correcting throwing mechanics, following pitching guidelines for various age groups, increasing arm and rotator cuff strength, and resting until pain resolves. Seemingly irrelevant, but very important, is improving strength in the core (abdominal) and leg muscles. Much of the power and control involved in throwing comes from the core and legs, and when these body parts are weak, the shoulder and elbow use excessive stress and awkward motion to throw.
Parents and coaches of young athletes who complain of persistent pain, aching, swelling, or tenderness should make sure they see their physician.