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How Much Elbow Pain is Okay for Baseball Pitchers?

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How Much Elbow Pain is Okay for Baseball Pitchers?

Jun 16, 2021

For baseball pitchers, a little bit of elbow soreness is normal—after all, there's no crying in baseball. But for pitchers experiencing frequent moderate pain after six innings, it may be time to see a professional. Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Peter Chalmers explains what to look for and why it’s important to get that pitcher’s elbow looked at so you don’t miss a season.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: So a little bit of elbow pain if you're a pitcher in baseball is okay, but if it starts to get pretty severe, you're going to want to do something about that.

Dr. Chalmers, how much elbow pain for a pitcher is acceptable? And what's kind of the threshold that you maybe want to have somebody look at what's causing that pain?

Dr. Chalmers: Yeah, we've done some studies that have helped to inform of us of that. And I think one thing to understand that it's not a normal human motion to pitch a baseball. There's nothing we're evolved to that makes us good at pitching a baseball. And there's a lot of adaptations pitchers undergo, as they pitch through adolescence, that help them to become better at it for sure.

But we've done two studies that I think help and inform our thinking about this. We did a large study of youth baseball players, kind of youth and adolescent baseball players, where we asked them whether or not they have pain. And about 30% of kind of normal, uninjured players will say they have regular pain with play. Now this study we did, though, I think is even more informative is we took pitchers and we had them throw through a simulative game. So they threw 90 pitches kind of in simulated 15 pitch innings. And what happened is that . . . and we collected pain scores and fatigues scores, and what we found is that as pitchers get towards that sixth inning, pain scores start to creep up to somewhere around 1 or 2 out of 10, which just kind of still qualifies as minimal to mild amount of pain but not zero pain.

So I usually tell pitchers, if you're throwing and you're getting above a 2 or a 3 out of 10, that that's not normal, it's not expected, it's not something that can be just swept under the rug with the classic saying of, "There's no crying in baseball," and that it's something that probably you should look into. But if you're having a little bit of soreness, 1 or 2 out of 10 with heavy use six innings of pitching, that's probably very normal and something that you could expect with this particular sport.

Interviewer: How do you, when you do the 1 to 10 ranking, help somebody understanding like what a 1 what might be? Because somebody's 1 might be somebody else's 6.

Dr. Chalmers: Well, no, I think you're right. I mean, I think this is always the issue with pain is there's no objective measure of pain. We have no way to measure that in a way that can be comparable between patients. We have the subjective scale. Usually, the ways that we qualify that are, you know, the number, which can be hard, the words which to say mild, moderate, severe, mild being kind of a 0 to 3, moderate being 4 to 6, and severe being 7 to 10. And then the other way we use this is the scale called the Wong-Baker Scale. It has this . . . you know, starts with a smiley face at zero and like a very unhappy face at 10. I usually think of 2 out of 10 as being a place where there's still maybe a little bit of a smile if you have a really good game, but definitely there's some grimacing if things get bad. And if you start to get to the place where there's no longer a smile on your face, then probably it's too much.

Interviewer: And that's during. What about pain afterward? How long until that pain would go away for kind of the average player?

Dr. Chalmers: Well, usually what I tell people is that you should be able to do what you're doing in a reproducible way every other day. So if you feel like I could pitch like this every other day, then that's a right amount. If you feel like, "Ah, I need four days to recover from this pitching outing because it was so painful or took that much recovery," then what you're doing is too much.

Interviewer: And you said, you know, the saying is, "There's no crying in baseball," and sometimes pitchers tend to be a little tougher than the rest. If somebody is having elbow pain above the threshold you described, what are some of the downsides to not having that looked at?

Dr. Chalmers: Yeah, there are definitely downsides to just pitching through significant pain. The significant pain can be a sign of a substantial injury to the elbow. So, for instance, if you do have ligament tear and you're trying to just work through it, I've definitely seen players that years later have developed arthritis in their elbow or they have bones spurs that have worked to kind of help the elbow to stabilize even though the ligament is not functioning properly. So there's definitely a downside to thinking, "I'm just going to push through this."

Interviewer: And then, what about the repair? Some of these elbow surgeries can take a long time for patients to recover. Do you think that plays into why perhaps sometimes pitchers choose to play through it, because they don't want to be out of the game for any period of time?

Dr. Chalmers: Yeah, I think that's definitely part of it, is that pitchers think, "Oh, I can't afford to take 12 to 18 months off." So, if you know that there's a solution that can get you back in six months, that's the length of the offseason, and I don't think you need to worry so much about, "Oh, I'm going to lose next season." So it's definitely worth if you're having pain thinking, the very least get it looked at the end of the season, to see maybe if there is something that can be done that could still you get back in time for next year.

Interviewer: Yeah, and new procedures are coming along all the time that have shorter recovery periods. So even if you are of the opinion or if you've heard, "Well, if I get this done, I'm going to be out for 24 months," that might not be the case anymore.

Dr. Chalmers: Oh absolutely. And not only that but if you're listening to this and it's two years from now, let me tell you, it's going to be even better, because we've got all sorts of things coming down the line that will help to bring down recovery periods for pitchers in the future.