I spoke to the father of an 11-year-old pitcher recently who has been experiencing arm pain. They took him to an orthopedic specialist who ordered an MRI, which showed no damage.
In most cases, probably at least 90%, soreness in youth pitchers is not going to show damage. But pain is something you should be concerned about.
With soreness you are getting an early signal that something is wrong. Act on that fast. STOP throwing immediately.
In pitchers who are still growing, especially youth pitchers, their bones are not hardened. They are simply soft cartilage or, as orthopedics would refer to it, “bone waiting to happen.” This means the bones are soft.
Muscles move the bones by shortening and lengthening in response to signals from the brain. Ligaments hold the bones together and tendons connect muscles to bones. Both ligaments and tendons are flexible but not elastic.
With youth pitchers who are either overusing their arms or have poor mechanics, this soft cartilage is weaker than the muscle tendons. As a result of overuse, portions of the growth cartilage on the inner part of the elbow may gradually be pulled away from the bone.
If you catch this early, the cartilage can reattach itself. However, if you let it continue then you can damage the growth plate and require surgery.
When the growth plate is damaged, bone growth is interrupted. This can actually cause long term disability.
At the first sign of pain, the pitcher should stop throwing and get medical attention. Keep in mind the doctor may not know what caused the problem unless it was severely overused. This can happen when the pitcher threw too many pitches without enough recovery time.
The elbow joint may be taking on too much stress because of poor mechanics. If a youth pitcher does not know how to use his body, then he just throws with mainly his arm and thus his mechanics are the problem. Or maybe he does too much of a strenuous warm-up routine before pitching properly.
This is when parents should seek the help of an expert who can evaluate their son’s mechanics using video. In such cases, a video analysis may become the best investment you ever make in your son’s pitching career. You will learn two things: what is causing the arm problem and why his velocity may be well below average.
Another problem for pitchers at all levels is not warming up the arm properly prior to pitching. Another problem that usually goes hand in hand with that is not having any type of post pitching recovery. Icing is not the solution after pitching.
If the connective tissue that supports the elbow or shoulder joint is not strong, then the joint and bones do not have support. This is why exercises which strengthen the muscles and connective tissue at the shoulder and elbow are so important for youth and high school pitchers.
There is a program we recommend for youth, high school and college pitchers as a pregame warm-up and post pitching recovery program as well as the best way to keep the shoulder and elbow strong.
We call it “arm insurance.”