Tulane Studies Pitching Injuries

By Staff

Coaching Management, 13.9, October 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1309/bbtulane.htm

Coaches used to think their windmill pitchers could throw a complete game—then do it again the next day, and the day after that—all without risking pain or injury. But now, researchers say that line of thinking is a big mistake, and that pitchers are visiting doctors and physical therapists in droves complaining of arm and back pain.

Calling it an epidemic, Sherry Werner, Coordinator of the Human Performance Laboratory at the Tulane Institute of Sports Medicine, says that 80 percent of college softball pitchers miss some playing time because of arm pain. Equally startling, says Werner, is that the same problems exist for players in the 12 to 18 age group.

“Each year we see 20 to 30 pitchers requiring some type of shoulder or elbow surgery at our clinic,” says Werner. “And we have another 20 to 30 each year doing rehab in lieu of surgery.” For Werner, those numbers indicate that it’s time for coaches to start being proactive.

“For too long we’ve heard the myth that softball pitchers have a natural throwing motion and they can pitch as much as they want without hurting themselves,” says Werner. “As a result, we see an increasing number of players every year—many 18 and under—coming in to see us. Many need surgery and have shoulders that look like they belong to a 90-year old.”

The first of Werner’s research projects, released in April, studied 24 pitchers during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics by recording their throwing motions during competition. The second project, to be published soon, examined a population of 12- to 18-year-olds. It was conducted in a laboratory setting where 158 injury-free pitchers threw off a regulation pitching plate. For both projects, Werner and her team performed a full biomechanical analysis on each of the players, which entailed calculating about 100 different elements of movement, including stride length and arm speed, to measure how much torque and force they placed on their shoulders and elbows.

“The main purpose was to compare our data with what is out there for baseball pitchers,” says Werner, a former pitching coach at Penn State University who has studied and treated arm injuries for 17 years. “We found that the stress on a softball pitcher’s arm is very similar to a baseball pitcher’s, which is what we expected, based on how many injured softball pitchers we see at our clinic.”

Werner’s goal is for coaches to treat softball pitchers with the same caution used for their baseball counterparts, starting with pitch counts and extended rest periods. Werner recommends pitchers 12 years old and under throw no more than 60 pitches per workout or game. She recommends no more than 80 pitches for 13- to 15-year-olds, and no more than 100 pitches for athletes 15 years old and over.

Coaches should also strongly consider giving their pitchers more time off between starts and workouts. “If you pitch on a Monday, we recommend that you take Tuesday off—whether it’s a game or a workout—with no softball activity at all,” says Werner.

“We realize that once teams get into nationals, pitchers will have to throw two or three games in a day, then come back and throw one or two the next day,” she adds. “And as long as that happens once, twice, or three times a year, it’s okay. But it can’t happen every other weekend.”

For more information about avoiding overuse injuries, see “One More Pitch?” at: www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm0907/pitch.htm