A troubling trend: Young athletes plagued by injuries commonly seen in the pros

Medical Watch
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They’re suffering the same injuries that plague the pros, but they’re only teenagers. A local orthopedic surgeon said overuse injuries a dangerous trend in youth sports. Maggie Carpenter’s recently returned to the pitcher’s mound. It had been seven months since the 16-year-old last threw a pitch, but it was an overhand throw that ultimately knocked her out of the game. “I was warming up and throwing overhand from the outfield and I felt a snap in my elbow,” she said. “That’s when I knew something wasn’t right at all. I knew that it was bad.” An MRI showed a torn ulnar collateral ligament in her elbow. It is an injury more commonly associated with major league pitchers. The reconstruction is called Tommy John surgery, named for the first baseball player who had it to save his career. Dr. Nikhil Verma is an orthopedic surgeon at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush and a Chicago White Sox team. “This problem is based on two factors. Number one, it’s the amount you throw and number two, it’s how hard you throw,” Verma said. “I didn’t really know what Tommy John surgery was until I was told I needed it,” Carpenter said. She first felt pain in her elbow two years ago. “The ligament was under stress for a long period of time. It was probably undergoing some microtrauma but was still functioning, and then that final throw is what finished it off and caused the complete tear,” Verma said. “If you go back ten or 15 years ago to have to do this operation in a 15-year-old girl would have been unheard of. This is a new problem that’s in large part related to overuse or single-sport specialization.” Carpenter has been playing softball since the age of seven. Her mother Keri Carpenter said her daughter loved the game. “The more she played, the more she loved it,” Keri Carpenter said. “We would practice at least three days a week with the team, six to eight hours a week on top of pitching lessons, hitting lessons and then tournaments. There wasn’t a lot of rest time because she basically played 12 months out of the year.” It’s a trend Verma is deeply concerned about. “It’s being driven by industry and business. It’s being driven by performance centers and weighted ball programs and travel teams. And that’s what’s happening in these young kids on a travel team. You’ve got to have enough kids playing in order to develop the handful of kids that are going to play in college and then from there the handful of kids that are going to play at the professional level,” Verma said. “The system is flawed. Unfortunately, it’s being driven by interests that are outside the health and well-being of our kids. There’s no data to say that single-sport specialization early in life results in better performance later in life. Really, they should be spending three to four months a year either playing another sport or just doing physical conditioning or workout type activities. But get away from the field.” “I should have taken advantage of icing my arm more often and taking rest days and just letting my body heal,” Maggie Carpenter said. “It’s definitely helped me become mentally tougher throughout the game. It’s been a life-changing experience.” Maggie Carpenter is back on her travel team and hopes to fulfill her dream of playing in college. This weekend she threw a no-hitter. But, she says, she has a new perspective when it comes to listening to her body.    

More tips from the experts

  Chicago Bulls Director of Performance Health Chip Schaefer uses sophisticated technology to track his players’ workload and mechanics. But when it comes to youth sports, he says it doesn’t have to be that complicated. “If you just use a period of a couple of months to unload for a period of time, before you regenerate and start to build those loads and demands up again for the next competitive season, I think are tremendously beneficial,” Schaefer said. “As opposed to just the same repetitive movements, the same repetitive demands on your body 12 months a year, year-round, year after year.” Lurie Children’s sports physician Cynthia Labella studies overuse injuries in kids. “We did look at sports specialization and we found that those kids who do specialize in a single sport, quit all other sports to focus on one, and played more than 8 months a year, had a higher risk of overuse injuries than kids who played multiple sports and maybe played each of those sports for three or four months,” she said. “They were about two times more likely to get an overuse injury and more likely to get a more serious overuse injury. I always recommend at least one or two days off a week from your main sport. And then over the course of the year, ideally 1-2 months off from the main sport. It should make a big difference.”  

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