The extreme biomechanics of fast throwing often lead to injuries.
Baseball is a popular and growing sport in Australia. It not only represents a pathway to Olympic representation or a professional contract, but combines a number of skills such as hitting, throwing, sprinting and catching. However, like all sports participants, baseball players have a risk of injury.
The upper limb is by far the most common site of breakdown. One recent study found that nearly two-thirds of baseball injuries were in the shoulder or elbow, due to the extreme speeds of throwing in the sport. The risk of an elbow or shoulder injury was 2.6 times higher for a pitcher than a position player, confirming that repeatedly throwing a ball is a very challenging task for a shoulder!
This high breakdown rate is not surprising when throwing is analysed biomechanically. One recent study revealed some startling data: the shoulder rotates at approximately 12 000 degrees per second during a fast baseball pitch! Furthermore, the speed of the hand was measured at nearly 1000 metres/second! With such enormous forces, it is easy to see why baseball upper limb injuries are so common.
So how do you prevent shoulder throwing injuries? The secret is to maintain the balance around the joint. What exactly do we mean by ‘joint balance”?
Joint balance has two main components:
(1) The passive structures. These are the bits that hold your bones together such as ligaments and joint capsule, and
(2) The active components – the muscles – that move the joint.
If the passive structures become either too tight or too lax then your throwing movement will become unbalanced. Your joints will either grind too tightly on internal structures when the throwing action forces it into certain positions, or will move around too far during the vital acceleration phase, causing microscopic tears. In either case, the grinding or tearing slowly accumulate until they become major injuries.
The same type of imbalance can occur with your muscles: if they become weak, they will be unable to stabilise your joint during the massive acceleration involved in throwing a ball. Similarly, if some muscles are overactive, they will pull your joint out of its normal alignment, causing accumulated damage.
So how can physio help in treating throwing injuries? First, we assess the balance of your shoulder, including all the passive structures and active components. We then direct your treatment toward correcting any anomalies.
For example, you may have some tightness in your joint capsule that requires mobilisation, massage and stretching to loosen it, and some exercises for your rotator cuff muscles to strengthen them and increase their stability. You may need some throwing practice drills to make sure that you use your new shoulder in the most efficient way.
Throwing a fast baseball is an extreme ‘occupational hazard’ for your shoulder, but with the right biomechanics you can perform it without undue risk of injury. Who knows, maybe an Olympic Gold Medal or a MLB contract might be yours one day … or maybe not. But in the mean time at least you’ll have a lot of fun.