Experts warn parents about recent uptick in youth baseball injuries

PHOTO: A Little Leaguer fires a pitch during the opening day of the Little League Baseball state tournament in Biddeford, Maine, July 18, 2014.PlayGabe Souza/Getty Images
WATCH Experts warn about a recent spike in Little League injuries

As Little League season gets underway, experts are warning parents about a recent uptick in baseball-related injuries that have been appearing in younger and younger athletes.

Former Olympic softball player and current ESPN correspondent Jessica Mendoza spoke to one 13-year-old athlete and to sports medicine experts for "Good Morning America," and found that the number of baseball-related injuries have increased as more young players compete in the sport year-round.

Experts said they are now seeing an increase in some of the more severe overuse injuries in younger patients, including a sharp increase in the number of young athletes requiring a reconstructive elbow surgery commonly known as Tommy John surgery.

"When I started my practice 17 years ago, Tommy John surgery was really a college and pro phenomenon, with a couple of high school athletes," Dr. Jeffrey Dugas, an orthopedic surgeon at the Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center in Birmingham, Alabama, told ABC News, adding that now high school athletes make up more than 55 percent of his Tommy John surgery patients.

"The youngest one I've done is 13," Dugas said. "And that was something we just didn't see 20 years ago."

A recent survey found that 15- to 19-year-old athletes made up nearly 60 percent of all Tommy John surgeries in the U.S., according to the American Journal of Sports Medicine.

Dugas told ABC News another trend he has been observing recently is that more young players come in with "Little League elbow," the painful precursor to the condition that leads to Tommy John surgery.

"The real shame in this is some of these kids end up not being able to continue," Dugas said, "And play a sport they love."

Little League elbow is caused by repetitive throwing, which can cause increased stress to the growth plate in the inner part of the elbow, resulting in inflammation. In some cases, the growth plate can even get separated from the bone, which may require surgery.

Jack Traffanstedt, 13, has been playing baseball since he was 5 years old. Recently, the pitcher tore part of the growth plate, in his throwing elbow, from the bone.

"He had pulled off a little bit of the growth plate where the Tommy John ligament attaches," Dugas said of Jack's injury.

Jack is one of the lucky ones who did not require surgery, but for Jodi Killen, Jack's mom, it was a wake-up call.

"We didn't expect the diagnosis," Killen told ABC News. "I was thinking tendinitis, inflammation. Take some aspirin, ice it, rest, you know ... I was shocked.

"It was very scary," Killen added. "I love watching him play the game. I love it, but ... my priority ... him being healthy."

Dugas said that although sports parents often get blamed for young athlete's injuries, it is not always their fault.

"The parents get hyper competitive, but the kids do too," he said.

Jack told ABC News that it was difficult for him to take time off from baseball, saying, "I love it," and that he misses being able to throw and play with his teammates.

Dugas said Jack should be able to play again in a few months, but meanwhile he has a message for all parents.

"I would say at all times, it should be fun," Dugas said. "And I think that's the thing that the parents have to get across, is that ... winning is not the only part of having fun. Playing the game is still having fun, and they have to enjoy just the playing of the game, not the winning of the game."

Dr. Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute, one of the country's leading experts on youth baseball injuries, shared his tips with ABC News for parents and coaches to help reduce injuries among young pitchers. Fleisig is also on the Advisory Committee of Pitch Smart, Major League Baseball's initiative to reduce arm injuries among youth pitchers.

Tips for parents to avoid Little League injuries from the American Sports Medicine Institute:

  • Watch and respond to signs of fatigue. If an adolescent pitcher complains of fatigue or looks fatigued, let him rest from pitching and other throwing.
  • No overhead throwing of any kind for at least 2 to 3 months per year (4 months is preferred). No competitive baseball pitching for at least 4 months per year.
  • Do not pitch more than 100 innings in games in any calendar year.
  • Follow limits for pitch counts and rest days.
  • Avoid pitching on multiple teams with overlapping seasons.
  • Learn good throwing mechanics as soon as possible. The first steps should be to learn, in order: 1) basic throwing, 2) fastball pitching, 3) change-up pitching.
  • Avoid pitching to impress the radar gun.
  • A pitcher should not also be a catcher for his team. The pitcher-catcher combination results in many throws and increased risk of injury.
  • If a pitcher complains of pain in his elbow or shoulder, discontinue pitching until evaluated by a sports medicine physician.
  • Inspire adolescent pitchers to have fun playing baseball and other sports. Participation and enjoyment of various physical activities will increase the player's athleticism and interest in sports.