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My Arm Hurts!

by Dave
Monday, February 19, 2007

A reader of this site wrote in regarding an injury she experienced last year during the high school season.   She says:

"I've had it happen to me before in 8th grade ... It felt like I had just learned to throw for the very first time ... My arm felt really numb ... I just had no feeling in the throw.   Coaches said it might have been a pinched nerve.   Fast forwarding to high school, we would practice everyday after school.   As a catcher having to do the regular warm up along with warming up the pitcher and later jumping in with the team in situational defense practice, this was something I wasn't used to.   For rec ball we'd only have practice twice or three times a week and for my club travel ball team, we only practiced around once or twice a week and I would never have to throw as much.   I guess through this change, I just unaware of the fact that each throw I made was hard.   I never realized that I should have only concentrated on the throws in plays on the field rather than in warm up.   But anyway, last year my arm and shoulder were hurting.   It happened around the beginning to middle part of the season.   It had been hurting me but I never bothered to do anything about it because I had always thought it was just "soreness."   But it started affecting my game.   It was a flashback to 8th grade, I no longer could throw the ball like normal.   Even stopped thinking about it but still my throws would never make it to the target.   During the school day in class I would just be sitting at my desk listening to a lecture and this tingly numbness feeling in my arm and shoulder.   My arm started to feel weak and there was a burning, stabbing pain running down my arm.   My coach told me to ice it and take ibuprofens.   It took weeks, I think even a month or so for it to finally wear off."

If you've ever experienced something similar, you know exactly what she is talking about.   You don't have to be a catcher to have had this happen to you.   And once you experience it, you will never forget it.   Your arm hurts before, during and after practice.   It hurts during school.   It hurts while you are trying to get to sleep at night.

This happened to me at the same age - 13.   I was out practicing with my rec team in March - we had no school team in junior high school.   I was moving up to 14U from 12U and I wanted to impress the other kids with my arm.   I whipped a ball in from the outfield, heard a pop and felt my arm get really sore.   At the time, folks used to say "you threw your arm out, son."   Nobody had any good advice for me on how to get better.

I have no idea what the incidence rates for arm injuries in baseball and softball are.   Usually when a player experiences this sort of thing, they do so in silence.   I think that's because nobody has any good advice for you once such an injury occurs and most kids do not see real rest as an option.   Most of the advice I have heard was similar to the girl who wrote in with the problem.   Take some analgesics.   You probably pinched a nerve or have tendonitis.   Rest it, ice it, it will go away, eventually.

I do know that most players with arm injuries try to play through the pain and I doubt this is a good idea.   The pile is high of players whose higher level aspirations were ended by arm injury.   Almost every person I know who quit professional baseball prematurely, did so because of an arm injury - torn rotator or blown out tendon.   From what I understand, "Tommy John" surgery is now almost as common for high school kids as it is for college and professional players who continue to throw despite significant elbow pain.

I can't offer up a diagnosis or recommend a cure for everyone who plays or has an arm injury.   What I can do is suggest some common sense measures which may help you avoid this nasty experience.   If you've already experienced something like this, I urge you to visit a competent sports medicine specialist who works with baseball and softball players on a regular basis.   All arm injuries are not created equal.   You could have bone spurs or serious tendon or ligament damage which, while not always hurting badly, could one day explode and end your career at an inopportune moment.

I once watched a 20 year old buddy of mine discover a serious injury unexpectedly.   We were playing in a recreational men's slow pitch league.   He picked up a simple base-hit up the middle and went to throw it back in but in the process collapsed and began screaming in pain.   He had bone spurs which had been digging into his shoulder joint when all of a sudden the bone gave way.   No, he never did recover from that.   So, if you're injured, get checked out.   If you're healthy, consider some common sense practices.

First off, picking up your glove and a ball, then throwing hard for the first time in months at your first practice is probably not a great idea.   Whether you are 8 or 18, you should try to throw some in the off season.   You don't need to throw hard, just throw on a regular basis.   If you play travel, there's a pretty good chance that your winter workouts begin the day after the last fall ball game is played and in that case, you can probably skip down a ways.   If, on the other hand, you compete in other sports, say for your high school, find some time on off days to throw a little before the season starts.

Maybe the school has time they can allow you to use the gym.   If not, look around to find a facility where you can throw for not too much money.   You can sometimes rent space at an indoor batting cage for a few bucks and if you bring enough friends, the price can be very affordable.   If you've had several months off, throw easy with an emphasis on mechanics and parts of your body other than the arm.   Throw with the long, loopy, leg-emphasis that an outfielder or baseball pitcher uses.   Keep your motion long and your throws at light intensity.

If there is absolutely no way for you to throw before the season, take it easy for the first several weeks.   I'm not saying you ought to throw so lightly that the coach cuts you or relegates you to the bench on the JV team, but do not throw with all your might from the first moment of the first practice.   Especially at the beginning of practice, throw easy and loosely.   Towards the middle of practice, after you've warmed up, you can throw harder.

One of the first things I noticed in girls fastpitch softball was that players always seemed to be throwing their hardest.   Warming up from 40 feet, girls threw like they were trying to nail a runner taking an extra base.   I saw this at tryouts for an ASA Gold team.   I've also seen this with travel teams I've coached.   From the first indoor practice to the last game of the year, my players seemed to always be putting everything into every throw.   My own kids do it.   There's no need ever for more than 20% - 30% of your throws to be at 90% - 100%.

Recognize that any throwing at all is beneficial to you unless you over stress your arm.   You don't need to always throw your hardest in order to get stronger.   I used to spend hours each day throwing with my friends.   My arm got quite strong.   But it wasn't necessary to always throw hard in order to build that arm strength.   Every throw is exercise.   You have to do some hard throwing eventually but soft tossing does help build arm strength.   Particularly when you are doing pre-season throwing, just throw easily.   Then as the practice season draws closer throw a little harder but not maximum strength.   Then when you get into real practices, start out slowly and build up.

If you want to wreck an automobile, there's one good way to do it.   Immediately after you start the engine, floor the gas pedal until the engine hits its maximum rpms.   Do this everytime you get into it and before long you'll be needing a new car.   Yet, that's what you do to your arm when you throw at maximum velocity during warm-ups or early in the season.   If you want the car to last, you let it warm up a bit before you even pull it out of your driveway.   Then you take it easy on the gas until the engine temperature gets to its normal level.   When you buy a new car, you take it easy on it for a while until the engine wears in.   Treat your irreplaceable arm the same way.   Start out by throwing easy and gradually increase the stress.   Your hardest throws should be reserved to well into the practice, say half way or later, and well into the season, at least after a week or two, maybe longer.

Don't forget to stretch your arm in pre-practice and pre-game routines.   After she hangs up her bat bag, the typical player takes a jog around the field and then stretches.   It's always advisable to get a little warm before stretching - stretching while cold has very little benefit.   The typical stretch emphasizes the legs and then moves on to the arms, back, etc.   It's important to stretch the large muscles and to do so after a light run since that warms them up.   It's also important to stretch the throwing arm after it has been warmed.   Running gets your juices flowing but it doesn't actually warm the arm up much.   You have to do something with them to warm them before stretching does any good such as windmilling them slowly to get the blood flowing.

After you've done some light throwing in warm-up, that is a good time to stretch the arm muscles again.   Actually I think it is always a good time to stretch your throwing arm.   If you are standing around at any time during a practice or game, use that time to continue to stretch your arm.   The more the better.   In games, right after you come off the field and right before you go back out, you should make a habit of stretching.

So now, you've made sure to properly warm-up and stretch.   You understand that you have to be warm to stretch so you continue to stretch your arm even after the initial warm-ups.   You soft toss during pre-game or practice warm-ups rather than throwing every throw with all your might.   The next thing I want you to consider is the benefit of long throwing.

The second thing I noticed in girls fastpitch softball is many of the high school outfielders I observed throw between innings from a very close distance - say 40 feet or less.   I realize this is intended to warm them back up after an inning of sitting on the bench, but it seems silly to me to merely throw from a distance which will be shorter than almost any throw you are likely to make in the game.   When you watch Major League Baseball, if you observe the outfielders between innings, they are almost always making long loopy throws.   Longer throwing forces you to work proper mechanics and to use your legs, back and abdominal muscles more than short, sharp throwing.   It also stretches out the muscles of the arm since you can't make a long throw using a short, snap-like throw to make the distance.   When you are able to throw long distance in team practices or on your own, make a point to throw longer distance than you will need in games.

A good throwing session would involve short warm-up tosses of say 15-20 minutes with stretching every couple of minutes.   I would say start out at 30 or 40 feet but then move back 10 feet after each five minute interval.   When you move back, this is also a good time to stretch for 30 seconds.   Progress to throwing easily at normal distances, then do some long tossing at 125% to 150% of your normal game situation throwing.   That means, for infielders, 80 - 110 feet, and for outfielders and catchers 100 - 130 feet.   You should still not be placing a lot of stress on your shoulder and arm - use your legs and back, and keep your throwing motion long and loopy like an outfielder.   Once you have accomplished this, you can move back in to game distance throwing and gradually pick up the intensity.   Afterwards, it is a good idea, if you have the time, to warm down by shortening the distance and lightening the intensity gradually until you feel it is time to stop.

If you get pressed for warm-up time before a game or practice, well, there isn't much you can do.   But don't try to throw hard until you are ready.   You have to be able to find at least 5 - 10 minutes to throw - strech - throw before going into a game.   If you don't have that luxury, you're going to have to use your head to try to find an alternative.   And between defensive innings, take advantage of whatever time you have.

Whether you have time to properly warm-up before a game or not, during the game make sure to do some appropriate throwing and stretching to keep your arm loose and warmed up.   Between innings, don't fall into the trap of doing a bunch of short, crisp throws.   They'll only tighten your arm.   If you're an outfielder, move back after a couple close-in throws and try to make some game-realistic throws at the very least.   If you are an infielder, move back away from the first baseman to make throws longer than you will during the game.

I would like to address all catchers privately for a moment.   I understand how you feel about your arm.   It is a source of pride for you.   You like showing it off - that's part of the reason you are a catcher.   But another thing you have to show off, another reason you are a catcher is because you are intelligent.   Don't do stupid things which hurt your arm.

I grew up watching a major league catcher named Jerry Grote of the New York Mets.   I've heard him discussed as being one of the five best defensive catchers ever to have played that game.   One of the things which would have struck you while watching him is he was a master of what I call flip back throwing.   When he was warming up a pitcher or during the game when there were no runners on base, he would simply flip the ball back to the pitcher.   He never threw the ball back at anywhere near 50% effort unless he had to.   Baseball is different than softball because of its 90 foot base dimensions.   But you don't need to fire the ball back to the pitcher every time.

One of the things I have noticed while observing higher level fastpitch softball is catchers almost always fire the ball back to the pitcher.   After years of watching, I still don't know why they do this.   It makes the pitcher work too hard to be prepared to catch the hard throw back and it wears on the catchers arm.   Sure, it is good to keep your arm ready to make difficult throws but every throw back doesn't need to be at or above 80% effort.   Learn to snap it back easily at 50% or less effort when you are working with pitchers in practice or during games when there are no runners on base.   Every tenth throw, you can throw a little harder but most of your throws should be easy.

As a catcher who makes a lot of hard, 85 foot throws out of a squat position, in a quick release, snapping motion, you must pay particular attention to making sure you warm up properly and stretch.   Fortunately, you have the opportunity to throw more than other players during the innings.   As I said, learn how to make flip back throws and then stretch your arm every so often by standing up and making a full throw back to the pitcher at say 80% of effort.   That should keep you ready to make the tough throws.

In practice, remember that every throw does not need to be at full strength.   OK, you need to impress the coach.   But if it is apparent to you that you are going to make 20 throws with the coach watching, start slow and gradually kick it up a notch.   Emphasize your legs, back and the back part of your shoulder initially, while throwing say 60% - 70% for the first couple.   Then pick it up to 80%, then 90% and so on.   By your tenth throw, you'll probably be at full strength with plenty of time to spare to impress your coach.   The worst case scenario is to make a perfect, hard throw on the first one, throw out your arm and then not be able to make the distance for the following 19 throws!   That's my advice to all you battle hardened catchers - start slow and then pick it up.

Aside from this advice, keep in mind that nobody out there has perfect throwing mechanics but some have more perfect than others.   Any imperfection of throwing mechanics holds the potential to cause injury.   If you are a serious ball player, I suggest that you get personal coaching for your throwing mechanics.   If you inquire at a facility which is known to provide lessons for various fastpitch functions like pitching and catching, inquire with them whether they have someone who can work infield or outfield throwing mechanics.   If they say they do, ask to speak with the person who will coach you or schedule one session to see if they seem competent.

I had the pleasure the other day of watching an extremely competent baseball pitching coach working with a 14 year old pitcher.   This coach's throwing mechanics were about as pretty as I have ever seen.   And he was extremely patient with this kid, constantly reminding him of the smallest technical errors he was making.   Not only did he instruct his student but he practiced what he preached.   Every throw back to the student was done with near perfect mechanics.   If you don't like your coach's mechanics or the way in which she corrects you, find another one.   Competent coaching can be invaluable.   Incompetent coaching can ruin your game or, worse, cause you to get injured.

To close up this discussion, remember to start out slowly, stretch when warm, continue stretching at off times, throw easy and gradually build up.   That's true for each practice and the season as a whole.   If you can, throw out of season.   Do whatever you can to avoid an arm injury.   Every throw does not need to be at full strength.   You really do not want to ever experience a mid-season arm injury.   It takes all the fun out of the game.

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