Throwing a baseball or softball can put significant strain on the elbow—and for children, whose bones are still growing, this can lead to an overuse injury known as Little League elbow.
Before puberty, the elbow contains a growth plate made of cartilage that is soft and less durable than hard bone, and which hasn’t yet reached its full length. The growth plate is attached to the muscles that allow you to rotate the lower arm towards the ground and flex the wrist. Repeatedly throwing a ball, and not allowing enough recovery time between training sessions, can cause tiny cracks in cartilage that may eventually separate the plate from the bone. This damage can occur over time, or from just one pitch.
If you suspect your child has Little League elbow, he or she should stop pitching immediately, apply ice for 15 to 20 minutes, and support the affected elbow by wrapping it in an elastic bandage.
Your doctor may want to take an X-ray to diagnose a suspected case of Little League elbow, and to see how extensive the damage is to the growth plate. If the condition is caught early, permanent damage is rare, and the elbow generally will heal with time, rest, icing and compression. Less often, your doctor will need to put your child’s arm in a cast to let the growth plate heal, and if damage is very severe, surgery may be necessary to pin the plate to the elbow.
Once the elbow has healed, prevent a recurrence by making sure your child’s coach supervises his or her pitching for proper form. Limiting pitching time, along with holding off on pitching curve balls until the pitcher has reached puberty, also can keep the elbow healthy—and keep your child on the field.