A 2015 Rush University Medical Center study found that athletes aged 15-19 accounted for 56.8 percent of all ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction procedures, more famously known as Tommy John surgery. That study followed UCL reconstructions from 2007 to 2011, and while no more recent study results have been released, that trend seems to be continuing rather than leveling off like it has at the professional level.
“We have noticed over the past couple of years that, and this was presented at the Winter Meetings this past December, we have noticed that the number of Tommy John surgeries among professionals was kind of flattening out which is good,” said Dr. Stephen Fealy, an Orthopedic Surgery/Sports Medicine Consultant for the Major League Baseball Players Association and an Associate Attending Orthopaedic Surgeon for the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. “The numbers for youths, and it’s almost impossible to keep true track of it on a national level, but anecdotally the numbers of youth injuries has seemed to continue to increase.”
Dr. Fealy went on to say that not all of the UCL injuries found in young athletes require surgery for treatment. Instead, some have PRP (platelet rich plasma) therapy, along with rest and physical therapy to deal with the injury in a non-surgical way. However, the trend does seem to be continuing for one major reason: continued specialization, and early specialization, in one sport.
“The other thing that we really think is happening is, I’m here in New York and I grew up here, and essentially we would only pitch and throw during warm weather seasons in the spring, summer and fall,” said Dr. Fealy. “But, what is happening is that baseball has become a year-round sport. More and more kids are throwing all year long. There really is no true downtime.”
Overuse injuries aren’t unique to baseball. Young athletes participating in nothing but one sport 365 days a year put themselves at risk for these types of injuries, not to mention psychological burn out. The advice for parents of athletes remains the same. Allow and encourage your kids to play multiple sports.
“I have three kids, a 16-year-old and two 13-year-olds and the thing that we literally stress in our house is just to keep playing everything. Doing one thing over and over again is not great,” said Dr. Fealy. “I would encourage all parents of athletes to not over emphasize early specialization and just let the kids be natural athletes. There is a belief that good athletes will kind of come out of the water naturally rather than us trying to make them good athletes.”