Studying young pitchers to help keep their arms healthy

Damaged shoulders, elbows are common

Health & Fitness

September 26, 2004|By William Hathaway | By William Hathaway,Hartford Courant

As 14-year-old pitcher Michael Spracklin winds up, he has more television cameras trained on him than Barry Bonds going for a record-setting home run.

Researchers at the Center for Motion Analysis at Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford hope that what they learn by analyzing the moves of Spracklin and other young baseball pitchers will keep their young arms healthy enough to face down the next generation of sluggers.

Studies of young pitchers are desperately needed because more and more of them are showing up at doctors' offices with damaged shoulders and elbows, said Dr. Carl Nissen, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Connecticut who is conducting a study of young pitchers at Connecticut Children's Medical Center.

"It's an epidemic," said Nissen, who has performed surgeries on a dozen young pitchers' elbows in just the past six months. Nissen and other researchers are using imaging technology to find out exactly what goes wrong with young pitchers' arms.

The most common explanation for arm injuries is that young pitchers throw too many innings and throw too many pitches such as curveballs and sliders that put too much strain on their underdeveloped bodies.

Though those explanations may turn out to be correct, "the reality is that it is almost all folklore," with few scientific studies to support the conclusions, Nissen said.

Curveballs studied

Already, motion analysis of five young pitchers in a pilot study has challenged at least one long-held Little League canon -- that the curveball puts undue strain on a young child's arm and shouldn't be thrown until at least puberty.

Nissen said detailed motion analysis of Spracklin, from Farmington, Conn., and other young pitchers showed that, when properly thrown, the "12-6" curveball -- one thrown straight overhand with a snapping motion of the wrist -- generates less force on the arm than a fastball, the stock pitch of pitchers of all ages.

But at least one study has found that pitchers using curveballs and sliders at a young age experience more arm problems.

"That's very clear," said Glenn S. Fleisig, chairman of research at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala., a leader in the field of pitching mechanics.

Though Fleisig's motion studies have shown that the curveball exerts about the same force on the arm as a fastball, it demands the use of a different set of muscles than a fastball, and that can generate arm pain, Fleisig said.

Fleisig, Nissen and other experts do agree that throwing an excessive number of innings is probably the chief cause of arm problems in young players and that extended seasons of six months, nine months or even all-year participation in organized baseball take a serious toll on young arms.

Old-time professional pitchers may have been able to throw a high number of innings later in life because they did not play organized baseball on a year-round basis, Nissen and Fleisig suggest.

"The risk of arm pain is statistically correlated to the number of pitches thrown per game, per season," Fleisig said, "although, we did not prove that surgery and injuries result."

Nissen said more scientific study is needed to confirm common wisdom -- or to debunk it.

"If you talk to a coach and tell him you can't pitch a kid more than one six-inning game a week, and he can only throw 65 pitches, he may say you ... have no proof," Nissen said. "And he's right."

Capturing the motions

What happens to a fatigued arm is just one question the Center for Motion Analysis wants to answer with its sophisticated imaging technology.

When Spracklin throws with motion sensors attached to his body, images from a dozen cameras translate data from the sensors into digital images -- which show up as a mobile, three-dimensional green-tinged skeleton on a computer screen. Nissen, along with Sylvia Ounpuu, director of the motion center, and other researchers then can examine from many angles the complex set of movements that make up a single pitch, picking up movements that are invisible even to the most well-trained pitching coach.

"We really don't know exactly how kids actually pitch," said Ounpuu.

Pitching mechanics in adults have been well-studied, in an era when top major-league pitchers can demand annual salaries in excess of $10 million, but young pitchers have not been extensively examined, she said.

For instance, experts say, youngsters get hurt often because they rely solely on their arms instead of using the lower part of their body to generate power in their pitches.

And carefully studying pitching mechanics may help coaches find new ways to prevent injuries to youngsters, Ounpuu said.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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