What Is Little Leaguer’s Elbow?

Our summer season heralds the start of sunny afternoons filled with baseball on backlots and school fields. At Summit, it also marks an increase in the number of young patients complaining of elbow pain. We explain how too much throwing can cause the overuse elbow problem known as Little Leaguer’s elbow.

When Minnesotans head to community ballparks to enjoy one of America’s favorite pastimes, Summit Orthopedics prepares to see more injured young baseball players. Medial apophysitis, or Little Leaguer’s elbow, is one of the common baseball-related injuries we treat. Youngsters who pitch are the most likely to be affected, but we also treat this injury in adolescent catchers, infielders, and outfielders.

To understand this condition, it helps to know how our elbow joint works. Three bones meet at the elbow: the upper arm bone, or humerus, and the radius and ulna in the forearm. These bones are held together by muscles, ligaments, and tendons. The elbow joint acts as both a hinge and a pivot. The hinge function allows the arm to bend, and the pivot function allows the lower arm to twist and rotate.

When a ball is pitched or thrown, the throwing motion stresses the bones and soft tissues in the elbow joint. Little Leaguer’s elbow is caused by repetitive throwing stress on the inside of the elbow, which overtaxes the joint. Younger players are particularly vulnerable because their growth plates at the ends of the bones in the elbow joint are still developing. This makes the bones weaker and more easily injured than the ligaments and muscles attached to them. As an athlete matures and the growth plates fuse, the injury risk remains, but the ligaments and tendons are more likely to be damaged.

Repeated throwing stresses the joint tissues and causes them to break down. When tissue breakdown happens faster than the tissue can repair itself, young players will feel pain at the knobby bump on the inside of their elbow. If Little Leaguer’s elbow is not treated, repeated throwing can tear ligaments and tendons from the bone, sometimes fracturing bones, pulling away bone fragments, or causing deformity in the bone.

When this injury is addressed early, before serious damage has been done, it can usually be treated without surgery. If your young baseball player experiences elbow pain, restricted range of motion at the elbow, locking of the elbow joint, or a painful popping sensation in the elbow, it is important for him or her to stop throwing immediately. Our elbow specialists at Summit are happy to evaluate your child’s elbow and develop a treatment plan designed to give the injured joint the time it needs to recover and heal. We are here to help your young player return safely to the game.

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