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Sports Medicine: Preparing Youth Athletes for Healthy Careers

youth pitcher1

Spring ushers in a frenzy of signing up for youth baseball and other sports – and these sports are becoming increasingly competitive for young players and their parents. Now is the time to focus on your young athlete’s lifelong career – and avoid the temptation to work a young, growing body too hard, for too long.

Every year, millions of teenagers participate in a variety of sports – and are increasingly accumulating injuries at the same rate as adult professionals. Injuries that affect young athletes are different from those that affect adults, because high school athletes are still growing. An emphasis on competition, collegiate scholarships and elite-level success has led to increased pressure to begin high-intensity training at young ages, often in only one sport. Consequently, overuse injuries and burnout are affecting many young athletes. Overuse injuries affect still-maturing joints, tendons, ligaments and growth plates.

Adolescent baseball pitchers are hard hit by these competitive pressures. Young pitchers who are taller, throw harder and pitch for multiple teams are more likely to have a history of shoulder and elbow injuries than their peers, according to research presented in March 2015 at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Annual Meeting.

The study revealed that height, pitch velocity, and playing for more than one team correctly predicted 77 percent of injury histories for these at-risk athletes.  31% reported a pitching-related shoulder or elbow injury, which showed with a 10-inch increase in the pitcher’s height, a 10 mile-per-hour increase in pitch velocity and a pitcher who played for more than one team, the likelihood of injury increased 20%, 12% and 22%, respectively.

What do these numbers mean? The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine cautions ambitious youth athletes and their parents to focus on the following guidelines:

  • Early sport specialization may not lead to long-term success, and may increase risk for overuse injury and burnout. Sport diversification should be encouraged at younger ages.
  • Limit weekly and yearly participation time, establish limits on sport-specific repetitive movements (e.g. pitching limits), and scheduled rest periods.
  • Carefully monitor training workload during the adolescent growth spurt, as injury risk is greater during this phase.

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