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Arm problems aren’t just a worry for old ballplayers

Brian Conway was tough to hit.

With a good fastball and pitching repertoire full of curveballs and sliders, Conway dazzled opposing hitters during his days in Little League Baseball.

As a teenager, he made the most of his talent. Conway played for two travel baseball teams and pitched almost every day in the summer before high school.

He was the star, and he didn’t want to let down his teammates.

“Of course, being so young I was attracted to that feeling of being the star,” said Conway, of Queens, N.Y. “That was my biggest mistake, feeling that I had to please both coaches, both teams, and not really looking out for myself in the long run.”

By end of the summer, Conway’s arm ached every time he threw. The injury that started as a twinge had become unbearable.

The pain in his elbow was too much to ignore, and something had to be done if he wanted to continue playing baseball.

So as a 14-year-old high-school freshman, before he even threw a pitch for his high-school team, Conway had reconstructive elbow surgery.

HIS STORY IS NOT unusual. Recent studies show more young baseball players are having Tommy John surgery than ever before.

The operation, named after the L.A. Dodgers pitcher who first had it in 1974, replaces a damaged elbow ligament (ulnar collateral ligament) with a tendon from elsewhere in the person’s body.

The procedure was once reserved for Major League pitchers, but has now become increasingly common in teenage pitchers. That fact has alarmed some doctors.

“It used to be extremely rare where you would be (performing surgery) on 15- and 16-years-olds,” said Dr. Joshua S. Dines, a sports medicine physician with the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.  “But now, unfortunately, they are using the term epidemic.”

Conway’s story is a cautionary tale for young pitchers filled with talent.

The best players on the team, usually a pitcher, often have the most arm trouble because they get overworked, Dr. Dines said.

Coaches want to win, and the players want to shine. This mentality can leave promising careers shattered before they really begin.

“It’s often parents and coaches that are pushing too hard and don’t understand that junior needs a rest,” said Dr. Robert A. Martin, an orthopedic surgeon with the Cardinal Orthopaedic Institute in Columbus. “A lot of times, that’s a problem.”

In dealing with these injuries, most doctors have identified overuse as the common theme. Players throw year-round, and rarely give themselves adequate rest in between outings, physicians said.

“You talk to some of these people, and the only time they aren’t throwing is the week between Christmas and New Yea’rs,” Dines said.

Other risk factors Dines identified include inadequate warmups and throwing breaking balls at a young age.

Physicians have debated the affect of breaking balls on causing elbow injuries, and some studies even suggest the fastball puts the most stress on the elbow.

“That is something that has been real controversial for the young adolescent athlete,” Martin said. “I think it is more the technique. If you throw a curveball with good technique it does not put an undue amount of strain on your elbow.”

As the frequency of Tommy John surgery has grown, so have the number of successful procedures.

A recent study from Dr. James Andrews, the foremost authority in the field, reported that 83 percent of athletes who had the surgery returned to the same or better level of play.

The surgery has prolonged the careers of several Major Leaguers, and some ballplayers even come back throwing slightly harder than before.

The post-surgery success of pitchers such as John Smoltz and Mariana Rivera has spawned some misconceptions about results of the procedure.

Some people view it not just as a career-saving measure, but also as a way to enliven a perfectly healthy arm.

Parents have even come to Dr. Dines asking if performing the surgery on a healthy arm could add some velocity to their son’s fastball.

“All it takes is one parent to say that and you realize how ridiculous this has become,” he said.

Yet even with the many success stories, the recovery is far from easy.

Recovery time is nine months to a year, Dines said, and sitting out an entire season at a young age is difficult to overcome. Even with the structured physical therapy post-operation, some players never come back as the same pitcher.

NOBODY KNOWS THIS better than Conway.

“That nine months off just took the best of me,” Conway said. “I didn’t have it anymore really.”

Conway never returned to the dominant pitcher he was at 14, and finished high school playing center field.

Now, as he sees young players with seemingly unlimited potential, he wants to caution them about how fragile a young pitching career really is — and how quickly it can end, he said.

“You have to be smart,” Conway said. “You can’t please everyone. You can’t please every coach because you only hurt yourself in the long run.”

Four years after having the surgery, Conway finds himself as a freshman at Adelphia University on Long Island, where he has considered walking onto the baseball team. Baseball has always been in his life, and he would have a tough time giving it up.

With so much invested in the sport, Conway can’t see himself walking away from the game.

“No,” he said, “not yet.”

Category: Athens News, Baseball

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