The smell of fresh-cut grass is in the air; the weather is warming; and Little League is in full swing! Spring and summer are refreshing times of year to be outdoors and watch your children play, but don’t forget there is always an element of risk involved.
Baseball and softball injuries like sprains, strains, fractures, and concussions often come with the territory. But Little League these days is a months-long commitment spanning the spring, summer, and into fall. With practices and games during the week and weekend tournaments, overuse injuries are growing increasingly common in Little League players.
This is because children’s tendons and ligaments cannot absorb the stress of repeated motions like adults’ can. The weakest part of children’s bones – the cartilage near the growth plate – will suffer when overused. In fact, Little League injuries can be long-lasting if left untreated.
Your child/children could especially be at-risk of a serious injury if you notice any of the following:
- Playing year-round
- Playing on multiple teams in a season
- Playing and practicing consecutive days with minimal rest in-between
- Throwing high pitch counts, including too many pitches before games
- Experiencing pain when throwing/pitching the ball
- Fatigue after playing long innings, double-headers, and/or tournaments
- Lack of sleep and/or poor diet
To prevent Little League sports injuries and keep your children playing the game, here are a few specific injuries to be aware of and watch-out for.
Little League Elbow Injuries
Especially ages 8 to 15
Little League elbow injuries are a result of repetitive motion and throwing. Initially, your child’s elbow may only hurt immediately following a throw. But, with time, the pain will gradually increase, and it is typical for swelling to occur. While Little League elbow injuries are most common in pitchers, children and teenagers ages 8 to 15 are susceptible.
Take your child’s complaints about any elbow pain seriously, especially if they point to the inside of their arm. If his or her elbow continues to be strained, a small fragment of the bone can eventually detach, or your child could experience a loss of motion in their arm if it is left untreated.
Contact an orthopedic surgeon in order to receive an accurate assessment, diagnosis, and treatment plan.
Little League Shoulder/Rotator Cuff Injuries
Especially ages 11 to 16
Shoulder injuries occur due to stress on the humerus, or the upper arm bone, which is nearest to the shoulder. They are most common in youth overhand pitchers ages 11 to 16. Symptoms include pain in the shoulder while pitching, throwing, lifting the arm, and even while at-rest.
Another indicator is if you notice your child’s usual precision when throwing is suffering; it may be a sign they are experiencing pain.
Conservative ways to treat Little League shoulder injuries include:
- Lots of rest, and possibly avoiding throwing activities for a time
- Icing the shoulder to reduce swelling and pain
- Physical therapy to strengthen the shoulder and arm muscles
- Completing a return to throwing program for a safe transition back into play
If your child’s shoulder injury or pain persists, schedule a physical exam with imaging tests.
Ulnar Collateral Ligament Injury
Especially ages 15 to 19
The ulnar collateral ligament is the small ligament on the inner elbow that is particularly affected by repetitive throwing motions. In baseball, it is famously known as a baseball pitcher’s arm injury, but it can also occur in anyone who repeatedly uses overhead arm movements. Ulnar collateral ligament symptoms include pain and tenderness in the elbow. In some cases, a player might feel a “pop” sensation or sound.
Unfortunately, this injury has gained significant attention for the growing number of “Tommy John Surgeries” for young players, especially ages 15 to 19, which account for more than 57% of ulnar collateral ligament surgeries.
While non-athletes can rest, ice their elbow, and go to physical therapy to treat this injury, athletes who are experiencing ulnar collateral ligament symptoms should consult their healthcare provider to decide the best treatments and to avoid Tommy John Surgery.
Other Practices to Help Prevent Injury
Overall, the best thing you can do for your child is to begin practicing healthy habits that can help prevent injury, such as:
- Limiting the number of times they throw the ball – in an inning, a game, and a week (including practice)
- Playing no more hours in their respective sport per week than his or her age (e.g., an 8-year-old softball player should compete no more than 8 hours per week)
- Recognizing signs of fatigue and responding with adequate rest, other forms of play, and plenty of sleep
- Avoiding pitching on consecutive days
- Taking-off two to three months from the specific sport
- Encourage multi-sport participation rather than sports specialization