Overhand throwing places extremely high stresses on the elbow. In baseball pitchers and other throwing athletes, these high stresses are repeated many times and can lead to serious overuse injury.
Unlike an acute injury that results from a fall or collision with another player, an overuse injury occurs gradually over time. In many cases, overuse injuries develop when an athletic movement is repeated often during single periods of play, and when these periods of play — games, practices — are so frequent that the body does not have enough time to rest and heal.
Although throwing injuries in the elbow most commonly occur in pitchers, they can be seen in any athlete who participates in repetitive overhand throwing.
Elbow injuries in throwers are usually the result of overuse and repetitive high stresses. In many cases, pain will resolve when the athlete stops throwing. It is uncommon for many of these injuries to occur in non-throwers.
In baseball pitchers, rate of injury is highly related to the number of pitches thrown, the number of innings pitched, and the number of months spent pitching each year. Taller and heavier pitchers, pitchers who throw with higher velocity, and those who participate in showcases are also at higher risk of injury. Pitchers who throw with arm pain or while fatigued have the highest rate of injury.
Most of these conditions initially cause pain during or after throwing. They will often limit the ability to throw or decrease throwing velocity. In the case of ulnar neuritis, the athlete will frequently experience numbness and tingling of the elbow, forearm, or hand as described above.
In most cases, treatment for throwing injuries in the elbow begins with a short period of rest.
Additional treatment options may include:
Physical therapy. Specific exercises can restore flexibility and strength. A rehabilitation program directed by your doctor or physical therapist will include a gradual return to throwing.
Change of position. Throwing mechanics can be evaluated in order to correct body positioning that puts excessive stress on the elbow.
Although a change of position or even a change in sport can eliminate repetitive stresses on the elbow and provide lasting relief, this is often undesirable, especially in high level athletes.
Anti-inflammatory medications. Drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen reduce pain and swelling, and can be provided in prescription-strength form.
If symptoms persist, a prolonged period of rest may be necessary.
If painful symptoms are not relieved by nonsurgical methods, and the athlete desires to continue throwing, surgical treatment may be considered.
Arthroscopy. Bone spurs on the olecranon and any loose fragments of bone or cartilage within the elbow joint can be removed arthroscopically.
During arthroscopy, the surgeon inserts a small camera, called an arthroscope, into the elbow joint. The camera displays pictures on a television screen, and the surgeon uses these images to guide miniature surgical instruments.
Because the arthroscope and surgical instruments are thin, the surgeon can use very small incisions (cuts), rather than the larger incision needed for standard, open surgery.
UCL reconstruction. Athletes who have an unstable or torn UCL, and who do not respond to nonsurgical treatment, are candidates for surgical ligament reconstruction.
Most ligament tears cannot be sutured (stitched) back together. To surgically repair the UCL and restore elbow strength and stability, the ligament must be reconstructed. During the procedure, the doctor replaces the torn ligament with a tissue graft. This graft acts as a scaffolding for a new ligament to grow on. In most cases of UCL injury, the ligament can be reconstructed using one of the patient’s own tendons.
This surgical procedure is referred to as “Tommy John surgery” by the general public, named after the former major league pitcher who had the first successful surgery in 1974. Today, UCL reconstruction has become a common procedure, helping professional and college athletes continue to compete in a range of sports.
Ulnar nerve anterior transposition. In cases of ulnar neuritis, the nerve can be moved to the front of the elbow to prevent stretching or snapping. This is called an anterior transposition of the ulnar nerve.