Understanding the Greatest Risks of Injuries to Throwing Athletes

Posted on 
September 7, 2023

Few actions in sports create more drama and excitement than the final pitch or touchdown throw. From youth sports to the pros, you can probably picture it now – a throw that won or lost the game, leading to jubilant celebrations or devastating disappointment.

Throwing requires an explosive and highly coordinated movement involving the whole kinetic chain, from the toes to the fingertips. While throwing builds suspense in sports, it also exposes athletes to a specific set of injury risks.

According to Forté’s Dr. Michael Bender, head team orthopedic physician for Butler University Athletics and Park Tudor School in Indianapolis, evidence shows the most significant risk is overuse.

Overuse: The Number One Risk

Overuse injuries occur when athletes experience repetitive stress to the body without allowing adequate time for the body to heal.

“There are a lot of factors that can increase the risk of overuse for young throwing athletes,” says Bender. “The big push for year-round baseball puts pressure on kids to join travel leagues and have extra training.”

“Kids can throw too many months of the year or too many pitches or innings per game,” he continues. “They can more easily violate pitch count recommendations because they’re on multiple teams and other coaches don’t know how much they’re pitching or what positions they’re playing.”

Athletes who experience a high volume of throws combined with inadequate rest and recovery can suffer from rotator cuff issues, labrum injuries, growth plate injuries, ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tears in the elbow and more.

“Parents, athletes, coaches and trainers should be proactive about monitoring workload more than anything,” says Bender. “Athletes can still train, get stronger and develop other parts of their game, but they need time off for their arm to recover.”

Throwing When Fatigued

The repetitive and forceful nature of throwing can also cause fatigue, the second greatest risk of injuries to throwing athletes. When muscles become fatigued, there is extra stress on vulnerable ligaments, which can lead to tears.

“We see this most often in those pitching while fatigued,” says Bender. “Those who do it regularly can have up to 36 times the injury risk.”

In addition to providing sufficient rest periods, coaches can help prevent fatigue-related injuries by developing strength and conditioning programs and gradually ramping up training intensity, especially for those returning from an injury.

High-Velocity: Putting Stress on the Body

A third leading risk factor for throwing athletes is velocity. The harder they throw, the more stress they put on their bodies, which can lead to muscle strains, tendon ruptures and ligament tears.

“High-velocity pitches get really close to the max of what ligaments can withstand,” says Bender. “We want the velocity gains to come from your lower half and whole kinetic chain to be more efficient in how you throw.”

To help avoid velocity-related injuries, athletes and coaches should focus on developing good hip and core strength to produce power.

Minimizing the Risks

While throwing can lead to various injuries, the good news is that many are preventable.

Athletes, coaches, parents and trainers who understand the greatest risks of injuries and what causes them can better protect a throwing athlete’s overall health and performance.

“We’re not trying to bubble wrap our kids,” says Bender. “We know there will always be some risk in sports, but we want to figure out how to make it fun and enjoyable while also minimizing those risks."

Forté offers services to help throwing athletes prevent and manage injuries. Its Throwing Athlete Program provides tailored rehabilitation, sport specific training and screening services specific to the overhead athlete. Request an appointment by phone at 317.812.1200.

These recommendations have been excerpted from Coaches Corner, a free monthly webinar series for coaches, athletic directors and athletic trainers. The series, developed and presented by Forté, in partnership with IHSAA, aims to arm coaching and support teams with helpful information to consider when working with their athletes. Subscribe online so you don’t miss an episode.

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