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Top 5 Injuries That MLB Players Suffer From

By Jennifer Hassan in MLB
| October 5, 2020 9:32 am PDT
5 Most Common Baseball Injuries that MLB Players Experience

It’s the World Series—your favorite time of year. You’ve logged onto your sportsbook and placed your MLB bets. The fridge is stocked with beer and hard cider, and your hot wings are on their way.

The action on the field is heating up. It’s the sixth inning of the third game, and passions are running high. The crowd in the stadium is noisy, the focus of the pitcher intense.

Then, it happens. The pitcher suddenly grabs his shoulder and bends over, clearly in pain.

He waves away his teammates, and you see a medic coming out to the mound. The pitcher hobbles back to the dugout. Even though the pain is in his upper body, he’s limping; he’s in that much discomfort.

Player injury in big league baseball doesn’t seem that traumatic to the fan. Yes, it’s painful to watch. If it’s a favorite player of ours, we’ll follow his recovery closely, hoping to see him back on the field.

But to the professional athlete, there is nothing scarier than an injury. Bank robbery? No problem. Sinking ship? We can swim.

But a stress fracture or a torn rotator cuff can be the most frightening thing to happen to a baseball player.

These are the 5 most common baseball injuries that affect MLB players.

UCL Damage

There are so many parts of the body that are referred to in sports injury reports using acronyms that it’s easy to lose track of what and where they are.

The UCL is the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow. A ligament is body tissue that connects one bone to another. In this case, the UCL connects the ulna to the humerus.

Humerus Without Being Funny

If you remember your anatomy, the ulna is a bone in the forearm, and the humerus is a bone that runs from the elbow to the shoulder. Therefore, if the UCL is impaired, you are going to have trouble using both the upper and lower arm.

This ligament on the inside of the elbow stabilizes the region. You can’t throw or catch properly if it’s injured, and in fact, you can’t really do much with the arm at all if it’s hurt.                

Because most professional baseball players began playing the game at a very young age, they are at much greater risk for this injury than players in other sports. A 28-year-old player may already have two decades of wear and tear on this ligament. The situation is called “early sports specialization” and can result in repeat damage to an area that results in chronic conditions.

Throwing a Fit

Throwers are most at risk for injury to the UCL. Any overhead motion can potentially aggravate that one poor ligament that has to do so much work.

In addition to baseball players, other at risk for this injury include track team javelin throwers, cricket bowlers, and tennis players who have an intense, high-velocity serve.

Now consider throwing at MLB speeds of 90-100 mph and doing it over and over, dozens of times in a game, and in five days, doing that all over again. Soon, MLB throwers have thrown 1,000 or times in a season, always using this one ligament for their strength and direction.

It’s not just pitchers who are at risk for UCL damage. Consider outfielders who have to throw a ball to home base as fast and as hard as possible. And infielders who must catch, twist, and shoot the baseball to another baseman without missing a beat.

It’s not surprising that this is a common baseball injury. What’s surprising is that it doesn’t occur even more frequently than it already does.

Heal, Boy!

Athletes may chafe at the length of time it takes for an injury to heal. A UCL injury can require months of rest. During this time, the player may see his replacement doing well out on the field, may worry about maintaining his place on the team, may fear getting cut as potentially “injury prone.”

All of this will make the player want to return to play ASAP. However, if he does, he could create recurring issues. He’ll have to learn to play with pain on the inside of the elbow.

He could suffer from lower throwing speed if he cuts his rehabilitation short, as well as reduced accuracy. Thus, in an attempt to get back into action, he could actually limit the longevity of his career.

It’s the classic short-term versus long-term solution conundrum that plagues athletes and coaches across all sports.       

Tommy John Surgery

If the UCL is torn or injured to the point that it’s better to replace the ligament than try to heal it, a Tommy John surgery may be undertaken.

Named after the first MLB player to receive the surgery, the Tommy John surgery requires that the damaged UCL be removed from the injured player and another ligament be inserted into its place.

The replacement ligament may be from the injured player’s own body or may be harvested from a cadaver. The player’s body must then work to adopt the “new” ligament and re-create the collaboration of all the elbow’s components to regain the player’s pre-injury health.

Rotator Cuff Injury

The shoulder seems like such a friendly, agile part of the body. Something we can rely on so assuredly that we end up taking it for granted.

We lift weights that are too heavy for us, assuming our joints will “take one for the team.” We play golf without warming up, even though we haven’t set foot on a course in a year. And don’t get me started on weekend warrior tennis players, who get an adrenaline rush by diving for a ball that they have no business chasing.

The shoulder is not something to be taken for granted. It is a complex community of bones, muscles, tendons, and socket.

The Mayo Clinic tells us that it is the joint most susceptible to injury, not only because of the sheer number of working parts within the shoulder but also because of how much we rely on its mobility and strength.

The rotator cuff is a “clique” of tendons and muscles within the shoulder that stabilize the joint. This stability is critical, not just within professional sports, but to life in general.

For instance, if you have the strength to lift your fork but not the control to bring it to your mouth, you run the risk of poking yourself in the eye or the ear. You’d be in a heap o’ trouble.

How much more important, then, it must be to a pro ball player, who is required to throw with accuracy in order to maintain his career.

(“More important than using a fork?” you may be thinking. To which I respond, “Yes. Shift to pizza and egg rolls.”)

Batsmen vs. Woolly Mammoths

The Top 5 Injuries That MLB Players Suffer From

We’ve learned that while the human body is precise and perfect in many respects, it is not immune to damage or instant and overwhelming shocks.

Yes, the human body is beautifully designed to throw an object overhead. This motion has been necessary for our survival.

However, there is one caveat. Our shoulder in general, and the rotator cuff in particular, can throw a spear with power and precision, thereby killing a beast and bringing home dinner. But it does so within limits. Unfortunately, there can be little to no warning that it has reached its limit.

Our ancestors threw spears when they were lucky enough to track and hunt game. If you are reading this, you are descended from a line of humans with both skill and luck.

However, MLB pitchers take the motion to extremes. A pitcher may throw more than 100 pitches in a game. There are games every week, and the regular baseball season is six months long. No ancestor faced 3,000 woolly mammoths a year. Or even 300. Or even 30.

Thus, although we can perform a motion in reasonable quantities, professional baseball players may do that motion at 10,000% beyond what is reasonable.

Hence, the number of players who end up on the injury report.

The Cost of Mobility

There is a big payoff for all of these moving parts. Yes, the shoulder is incredibly mobile, able to move in nearly every direction. It’s what makes professional sports worth watching.

We wouldn’t watch baseball if it were played by T. Rex dinosaurs, with their lack of arm mobility and strength. It would be as boring as someone who doesn’t have a kid in the game being forced to watch tee ball.

However, because of all the components within a shoulder, there will be injury and pain. And when a player has pain in the area, the problem may not be obvious, due to all of those aforementioned components. Without modern medical technology, diagnosis and treatment would be a wearying cycle.

Thus, an MRI is usually needed to correctly diagnose a rotator cuff issue.

No Two Players Are the Same

Treatments for rotator cuff injury vary from person to person. The physician (or, in the case of an MLB player, the entire medical and orthopedic staff) will consider variables such as:

  • the size and severity of the tear
  • the age and general health of the patient
  • the patient’s history and whether this is a recurring issue for him
  • how athletic the patient hopes to be after recovery

Professional baseball players tend to be young, with the average age across the league about 28 years old. Furthermore, the player is going to want to return to his full, pre-injury athleticism, if possible.

Thus, lifelong cortisone shots, rest, physical therapy, and ultrasound alone may not be enough to rehabilitate the area. Surgery may be required.

But if surgery is going to be the chosen option, it should be done as soon as possible after the injury is incurred.

“HOW LONG?!”

Unfortunately, it can take up to a year—sometimes more—to fully rehabilitate from a rotator cuff injury. Pitchers, who tend to throw at higher velocity than positional players, will take longer to heal because of the increased repetitive stress combined with the force of their pitches.

Pulled Muscles

One of the main goals of spring training is to get the players in good enough shape that they can resist injury. Some players take to the exercise with eager enthusiasm and a commitment to get in as good a shape as possible.

Others…not so much. We’ve all seen veteran ball players who are not in peak condition. They’ve proven themselves on the field enough that their coaches know their skill, and this known quantity keeps them on the roster. But it’s not the road to physical success.

Every extra pound on a body adds stress to bones, ligaments, and muscles, increasing the risk of strain.

But even the most fit ball player will suffer from pulled muscles at some point in his career.

Oblique Strain (aka Side Strain)

There are several muscles in the torso, from the rectus abdominis to the serratus anterior to the external oblique. However, it’s only one of them that gives baseball players a lot of grief.

The obliques are those muscles located on each side of a person’s “six pack.” When you put your hands on your hips and bend to the side, you are using your obliques to lower yourself and to raise yourself back to standing.

Casual athletes and people who may only attend the occasional yoga class will follow along with the instructor and gamely bend side to side during the warmup portion of the class. It’s an easy stretch, but we’re not sure why we do it. It seems a bit like a throwaway move.

A Direct Statement About an Oblique Muscle

Not so to a pro athlete. Warming up this area properly can mean playing a month of ball versus lying in bed with an ice pack.

These oblique muscles are the most pulled muscle group that lie within the torso, at least within the MLB. These obliques are used during both hitting and throwing, so whether a player is at bat or fielding, these muscles are in action. Baseball games can take hours, and these muscles don’t catch a break.

An oblique strain can be mild, moderately severe, or can involve a situation where the muscle is ruptured.

An oblique muscle can be damaged in two ways. The muscle can be overextended, i.e., “pulled” to the point that it needs to repair itself before full use can be regained without pain. Or it can be torn, in which case treatment and recovery are more complex.

The recovery time for a damaged oblique can stretch from less than a week to longer than four months. For aggravated injury, surgery may be required. The average time to rehabilitate a pulled oblique is one month, if no surgery is required.

Bicep Pulls                  

Detroit Tigers player Miguel Cabrera was surprised and dismayed to when he incurred bicep pain and was told that not only would it require surgery, but his season was also over because of it. Cabrera became aware of the injury just after he took a swing.

It was the third inning, which makes the injury interesting. If it were the first inning, one could surmise that he had taken a shortcut on his warmup. If it were the seventh inning, the pain could have been incurred due to overexertion. But in the third inning, neither of these scenarios seem likely.

His bicep pull was just another casualty of the game, and he had to face the medical process because playing with a pulled muscle is not a wise or healthy alternative.

Most people are familiar with the bicep (even if we haven’t seen ours in years). Think, “Popeye.” This muscle isn’t just used to lift heavy objects. The bicep raises and lowers the forearm and also supports the elbow joint. There’s no baseball without it.

Repetitive throwing, the same thing that threatens the rotator cuff, can also damage the bicep. Three weeks to heal is not an uncommon rate of rehabilitation when this muscle is strained.

Hamstring Pulls

The hamstring is a group of muscles located at the back of the thigh, stretching from the top of the knee and up into the hip. This muscle can become injured during any sprint, but it’s most commonly incurred, reports the NIH, when a player runs from home plate to first base.

This tends to occur when a person breaks into a sprint. The quadricep muscles in the front of the thigh contract suddenly, which automatically causes the hamstring muscles in the back of the leg to stretch.

If the quadricep muscles are stronger than the hamstring muscles, the stronger quads will pull or tear the hamstrings as the muscles in the back of the thigh are pulled more tightly than they are capable of stretching.

Since baseball is full of sudden start-stop movement, it makes sense that this injury is among those most frequently suffered by players. That doesn’t make it easier to bear, however. Too many hamstring pulls can cost a player his career.

There are six months in the baseball season, six months in which to tear, pull, bruise or break any number of things in the body. A hamstring injury can keep a player off the playing field for a month.

That’s a big chunk of the season. If the player is a pivotal one for the team, it could affect the team’s chances of making the playoffs.

Therefore, teams are working hard to use the latest medical knowledge to reduce the incidence of this injury.

An Angelic Vision

The Los Angeles Angels undertook a hamstring-injury prevention program in 2016 and saw a dramatic decrease in this injury. The exact specifications of their program are unknown, but yoga and Pilates play a part.

The National Institute of Health did a study on hamstring tears. The Institute found that in the six years encompassed between 2011 and 2016, professional baseball players (in both the major and minor leagues) experienced more than 2,600 hamstring injuries.

That is hundreds of hamstring injuries per year, across both leagues. Considering the one month of recovery time per incident, the league is losing about 300 months of player availability per season. The MLB has a vested interest in addressing this issue with alacrity.

Standard Hamstring Treatment

As with many sports injuries, the RICE approach tends to be used as first aid: rest, ice, compression, and elevation, all with the aim of reducing inflammation. If the tear warrants it, surgery may be required.  

Knee Injury

Knee injuries plague athletes in most sports, from football to curling to Finnish wife-carrying. Our bodies are not light, airy things. They are dense and active, heavy and frequently tired, stressed and overworked. And the knees know it.

Knee injuries are common in the MLB and are the fourth-highest reason that players miss games. When Cubs player Kris Bryant incurred damage to his knee, he was out for 1/3 of the season. Fortunately for Bryant, surgery was deemed unnecessary, but even a sprain needs time to heal. 

Slightly more than 10% of knee injuries need surgery, reports the NIH. Tears, sprains, strains, bone bruising, and dislocation are just a few ways an overworked knee may choose to make its misery known. As with most of the body’s joints, there is a lot more going on in there than most non-medical people know about.

Some knee strains only need the RICE protocol to commence healing. Other knee injuries require surgery. All knee injuries demand that the player rest and keep pressure off the joint. Therefore, all knee injuries in the MLB are costly in terms of time lost, money spent on medical intervention, and possibly playoffs missed due to the presence of valuable players on the injured list.

Lumbar Stress Fracture

A stress fracture is one or more minuscule cracks in a bone that can usually be healed by the body. A lumbar stress fracture occurs in the lower spinal region, among the section of the lumbar vertebrae known as the “pars” (short for pars interarticularis).

This is generally caused by repetitive hyperextension of the spine, i.e., bending backwards over and over until the area is strained to the breaking point. This is the motion that we most associate with a pitcher’s wind-up, that extreme arching and twisting of the back as the arms seek to display their full momentum.

A Two-Way Pileup

It has been noted that the spinal vertebrae are designed to provide agility when we are moving our bodies forward and backward. They are less strong when we rotate the body.

Thus, in addition to hyperextension of the spine, when baseball players whip around in a rapid rotation when they let the ball fly, they are dramatically increasing tension in the lower back.

This issue is not unique to professional baseball players. High school players and even little leaguers can incur these lumbar stress fractures.

Recovery time can range between one and nine months, depending on how severe the stress fracture is. For a pro ball player, this can mean losing an entire season and may even make him liable to be traded.

Thus, these players want to return to play as quickly as possible. However, even a week too soon could spell an even worse spinal injury.

Supporting the back with a brace or bed rest and recommending some gentle exercise while the body repairs the fracture are often the treatment protocol prescribed.

A Final Word: The Irony of Professional Athletics

Here’s the funny thing about these injuries. If you don’t use a muscle or joint enough to condition it, you get injured. If you use it too much, too fiercely, in too repetitive a manner, you get injured.

Thus, it’s possible for an MLB outfielder and an esports couch potato to both be confined to the same couch, icing their injuries and looking at similar recovery times.

You could seek a sweet spot, but you’re unlikely to find it, not when the pressure to perform, to make the playoffs, to get your coach off your back, and to negotiate a better salary are on your mind.

It’s critical to focus on your form and stay in close touch with any preventative medicine professionals on the payroll of your team. Also, if you’re a pro ball player who has experienced repetitive injuries, you may want to put some cash into savings.

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