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With springtime fast approaching, this means the return of baseball season and unfortunately baseball-related injuries. Major League Baseball, which is the second-most popular sport in America, is best known for its pitchers. Have you ever wondered how someone could throw a ball so hard and so fast, on speeds upwards of 100 miles per hour? Have you wondered the amount of stress and likelihood of elbow injury that this can cause? Glenn Fleisig, a professor and researcher at UAB School of Engineering, attempts to tackle these questions.

Fleisig explains that an elbow surgery, called Tommy John surgery, is common among baseball pitchers of all ages, from children to professionals. The purpose of this surgery is to repair the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in the elbow, which allows pitchers to effectively throw. And to illustrate how common it is, 25% of all current MLB pitchers have undergone Tommy John surgery. And in 2014, around 100 pitchers underwent the surgery, a sharp contrast to just 20 years prior, where only 5-10 pitchers underwent this surgery per year. This statistic is especially alarming because 20% of the pitchers noticed dips in their performances after the procedure.

 There’s enormous force on a pitcher’s arm during a pitch.

Image Source: Steve Russell

​​​​To further analyze this issue, Fleisig and James Andrews, a sports surgeon, studied 476 youth pitchers starting in 1999, and each year for ten years, Fleisig and Andrews tracked the number of innings pitched and injuries suffered. Their goal was to study the biomechanics of the joints and tissues involved in pitching the ball at around 100 mph. To accomplish this, they used a high-speed and three-dimensional motion analysis system to measure the stress on the elbow and shoulder during a pitch. Fleisig and Andrews found that there was immense stress on the elbow, equivalent to five 12-pound bowling balls weighing the arm down.

In a 2011 paper, Fleisig and Andrews showed that pitchers who pitch more than 100 innings per year will triple their risk of arm injuries. They attributed this to two factors: pitching too much and poor mechanics. Many baseball leagues have tried to solve the problem of over-pitching by implementing pitch limits and mandatory rest days. In addition, MLB has partnered with the website Pitch Smart to provide a guide for proper pitching mechanics. Ultimately, even though elbow surgeries have been going up, it’s good news that baseball leagues have taken steps to mitigate their effect.

Feature Image Source: Diner by Caitlin Regan

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