The most haunting words in baseball culture are “Tommy John surgery.” These days, you’re lucky if you don’t hear about a pitcher having to make a dreaded doctor’s appointment because of elbow tightness and/or pain on the inside of the elbow.
The pain these unlucky baseball players feel comes from a partial or full tear of the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). It’s the pain made famous by celebrated Dodgers pitcher Tommy John, who in the 1970s underwent the extensive, groundbreaking surgery to repair his damaged ligament.
John may have been made famous by the surgery, but what if he could have avoided the injury altogether?
Rotator cuff strengthening—popularized after John’s surgery—could have been the antidote. These exercises include variations of internal and external rotations, among others.
Since the introduction of rotator cuff strength training, velocity seems to keep climbing. Fastballs reaching 95-plus mph seem to be the norm in Major League Baseball these days. Some say that pitchers’ shoulders are becoming too strong for the ligaments in their elbows to support the unnatural action of an overhead throw. But players are not going to stop strengthening their shoulders.
So what can be done to help prevent a tear of the UCL?
Don’t Get Premature Surgery
Athletes shouldn’t consider premature surgery. Period. Tommy John surgeries are not inevitable. There are several things you can do to prevent an injury (more on that below). Also, any time you have surgery, there’s a chance you’ll never recover to your previous health. Yes, some pitchers come back to their former level of performance, but this isn’t guaranteed.
Increase Shoulder Mobility
Shoulder strengthening needs to be an emphasis, but you can aid in injury prevention by focusing on the mobility of the shoulder joint (internally and externally). When you maintain mobility in your shoulder joints, less stress is placed on the rest of your arm while throwing. Some great stretches for increased shoulder mobility are the Sleeper Stretch, Reach and Roll, Internal/External Towel Stretch and Manual Partner Stretches.
Increase Thoracic Mobility
You can also work on increasing mobility throughout your thoracic spine (T-Spine). Many have limited range of motion in their T-Spine, which can cause shoulder pain and/or insufficient shoulder mobility. Lack of shoulder mobility feeds right into greater amounts of stress on the UCL. With thoracic spine rotational exercises, you can aid in injury prevention in two different areas of your arm. Great exercises to create increased mobility of the T-Spine are Thoracic Windmills, Quadruped Thoracic Rotation and Spiderman Lunge with Rotation.
Do Not Specialize
One word of advice I would give to baseball players is don’t specialize in the sport at a young age. It is healthy for your arm to rest over a long period of time. Athletes can strengthen their bodies and maintain their competitive mindset by playing other sports. Adequate rest can be the most efficient way to prevent future injuries.
Tommy John surgery may be fated for some, but if you take the proper precautions by working on shoulder mobility and thoracic spine mobility and getting sufficient rest, it might be avoided.