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CHANNEL 5 NEWS – Dr. Lehman – An Epidemic: Pitching injuries destroying dreams of child athletes

May 27, 2015

Katie Felts and KSDK , KSDK
ST. LOUIS – “It was a huge part of my life,” 23-year-old Dustin Pendergraft remembers.

From boyhood on, his memories are of standing under blue skies, the crack of the bat, and loving a sport.

“We would always play baseball” Pendergraft said.

For which Pendergraft showed a talent, particularly for pitching. But by the time he was in high school…

KSDK: “How many pitches do you think you threw in a game, what’s the most?”

Pendergraft: “The most pitches I’ve probably thrown in game is probably close to 150.”

Then one day it all changed.

“It was the 74th pitch I believe”, Pendergraft said. “Everybody on the field heard it snap.”

“It” was the ligament in his pitching arm, and it was the beginning of the end of Dustin’s baseball career.

Experts say it’s an epidemic. Young talented pitchers being pushed at earlier and earlier ages, both by themselves, their coaches, and even their parents to win just one more game. But the result is often permanent damage.

“I want to succeed, I’m a competitor, I want to win” Westminster pitcher Nathan Scott said.

So when Scott felt a twinge in his elbow, he says he kept quiet and played until he couldn’t perform.

“I could barely lift my arm. It was killing me,” he remembers.

When it came to injuries from overuse, Scott’s parents had been watchful and protective. Dismayed, they brought their son to orthopedist Dr. Rick Lehman.

The prognosis? Surgery.

“To me it was a surprise”, Donna Scott, Nathan’s mother, said.

What he needed was a special type of operation called “Tommy John” to repair the ligament. Now two years later, the procedure appears to have been successful.

“I’ve come back stronger than ever,” says Scott.

But often, even a Tommy John operation isn’t enough. Dustin Pendergraft had the operation and also two years of recovery.

But when he tries to pitch?

“Now I go out there and it’s just pain,” Pendergraft said.

Worse? Dr. Lehman says he’s seeing younger and younger athletes with these injuries.

“If you’re having elbow problems at 12-years-old, you need to learn to play the piano or the violin,” Lehman said. “Because you’re not going a long way.”

Dr. Glen Fleisig agrees. He’s the head researcher for the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Alabama.

“We’ve never seen the types of injuries we’ve seen now,” Dr. Fleisig said.

Dr. Flesig did a groundbreaking biomechanical study of pitching injuries in nearly 500 pitchers.

“The ones who had the high pitch counts and the higher number of pitches for the whole season were the ones with the elbow and shoulder pain.”

So what’s the solution? Limiting the amount of pitches, according to ASMI surgeon Dr. Jeff Dugas.

“I saw a 15-year-old throw 120 pitches last week,” Dr. Dugas said. “I would say the limit is probably 80.”

In fact, the Institute has devised recommendations for limiting children’s pitches. (SEE below.) A number of state sporting organizations have considered adopting them.

American Sports Medicine Institute | Research

Which brings us to an irony: You see at the college level and Major League Baseball, keeping “pitch counts” are ‘de rigeur’ for protecting pitchers, when it comes to Missouri high school and junior high school athletes, they’re not.

Instead, these student-athletes are limited on the amount of INNINGS they can pitch, no more than 10 in one game.

Dr. Dugas’ reaction: “That would border on child abuse.”

We also asked Dustin for his thoughts on the rule.

“Absolutely ridiculous” he said, “especially for kids at such a young age.”

So we asked the Missouri State High School Activities Association why not pitch counts? Assistant Executive Director Tim Thompson says they’ve been considering it.

“We all want to protect student athletes. We do not want 13-year-olds having arm surgery,” Thompson said.

But, the process has been on-going for two years and there have been delays.

“When we do make a rule change like this” Thompson told NewsChannel 5. “It would come from the Sports Medicine and or the Baseball Advisory Committee and neither one of those committees have come forward with an exact plan.”

So, Dr. Dugas and others say that in the meantime parents have to step up to the plate and count and limit the pitches thrown by young athletes.

In fact, below KSDK has provided a link to ASMI’s recommendations for child pitchers. In addition, the founder of ASMI has developed an app for your smart phone to help parents keep track of their kid’s pitches and a link to that is also below.

Pitch Smart

“You really have to put your parent hat on” Dugas said. “Not your fan hat, not your agent hat, not your coach hat you really have to put your parent hat on and protect your child.”

As for Dustin, he tried playing the game in college but says: “It’s pretty much over now. I miss it a lot.”

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