HOUSTON (March 06, 2015)

Houston Texans defensive end JJ Watt recently said it best:

“Single-sport specialization among youth today is troubling. Let kids be kids. They’ll become better all-around athletes and have more fun.”

The spirit of Watt’s comments puts into perspective the intended spirit of sport. As an orthopedic surgeon who is seeing more and more youth athletes in my office, his comments resonate with me not only on the psychological level, but within the scope of injury.

What makes youth so amazing is their ability to recover completely and quickly. With any type of motion, regardless of a person’s age, microscopic damage occurs in response to the stresses a given body tissue experiences. The success and magnificence of the human body exists in the ability to repair this damage to maintain function.

But this repair takes time.

According to the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, injuries in young athletes are on the rise, in particular elbow and shoulder injuries are nearing epidemic status in the baseball and softball world.

If a young athlete is throwing too early in life, too hard, too much, and especially without enough periods of rest, serious elbow or shoulder injury can occur. The tissue stress that occurs though year-round, repetitive play can exceed how fast and able the body can repair itself, and can predispose youth to permanent injury later in life.

Many of these ‘overuse injuries’ can be prevented. Some tips to lessen the risk of an overuse injury in baseball and softball include:

  • Warm up properly by stretching, running, and easy, gradual throwing
  • Rotate playing positions Age-appropriate pitching and position skills
  • Adhere to pitch count guidelines, such as those established by Little League Baseball Don't pitch on consecutive days
  • Don't pitch with elbow or shoulder pain; if the pain persists, see a doctor
  • Avoid year-round play

If an overuse injury does occur, the first course of treatment is rest. Return to play should only occur once 1.) the pain has completely resolved and 2.) after a gradual ramping up of training occurs in preparation for normal play. Anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen and appropriate icing and/or heat may also help.

However, if the pain persists or recurs despite proper rest and treatment, it might be time to see a physician. In some cases, different treatment or even surgery may be needed.

Above all else, pain is the body’s way of telling us ‘Stop doing that!’ Listen, rest, and have a program in place towards return to play.

About author: Derik J. Geist, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon affiliated with the Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at UTHealth.