Any baseball player or fan, and even those of us who rarely go near a ballpark, have probably heard the term pitcher’s elbow. This common throwing-arm injury is characterized by pain that runs on the inside of the elbow from the elbow to the wrist. It can be caused by a number of activities, but it’s particularly prevalent—and infamous—among ball players. The diagnosis can force players to take a big break from the pitcher’s mound and, if critical, can end a career.
Baseball players and other throwing athletes—anyone who throws repeatedly overhand—are at higher risk of elbow injuries because the overhand throwing motion puts significant stress on the elbow. And because throwing athletes often perform this motion over and over again, the stress is compounded with overuse. You can put similar stress on the elbow during a golf swing or a strong serve in tennis and when operating a chainsaw or carrying a heavy suitcase.
One reason that the elbow is vulnerable in throwing athletes is that one ligament, the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), is put under major stress when you pitch or throw overhand. The UCL stabilizes the elbow during throwing, along with several muscles, nerves, and tendons. When the UCL and this complex stabilizing system are overstressed, athletes can experience pitcher’s elbow (also know as golfer’s elbow or medial epicondylitis, among other names). This pain can be caused by one of the following injuries:
- Damage to the tendons (tendonitis) involved in supporting the elbow
- Injury to the UCL, from minor damage and inflammation to a complete tear of the ligament
- Stress fracture (tiny crack) of the olecranon, the bony point of the elbow
- Overgrowth of bone spurs when protective cartilage is worn away
- Injury to the ulnar nerve from repeated stretching
Stay in the Game: Pay Attention to Small Changes
Because sports-related elbow injuries are often caused by overuse instead of a major event like a fall or collision, they can sneak up you. Your elbow can get increasingly stressed overtime, so what starts as a minor irritation can progress, unnoticed, to a full-blown injury.
If you’re a throwing athlete, be mindful of how much you’re using your elbow, especially if you have a particularly heavy game or training schedule. Don’t ignore minor symptoms, such as low-grade pain or occasional swelling, as they can signal that bigger trouble is brewing.
Talk to your coaches, trainers, and physical therapist before the condition progresses and has you benched. A little care now can keep you in the game for the long run!
Read more about Pitcher’s Elbow (Medial Epicondyle Apophysitis).