As the call for pitchers and catchers to report goes out in Arizona and Florida, amateur athletes are also getting the itch for warm weather and outdoor activity. Whether you’re dusting off your baseball glove, your tennis racket, or your golf clubs, it’s not too early to start thinking about avoiding a sports injury that could keep you out of commission for most of this season. On Wednesday, March 2nd, at the Tinley Park Convention Center, the University of Chicago Medical Center will present a free seminar, Stay in the Game, featuring a panel of sports medicine specialists (and a buffet and iPad raffle, to boot).
Among the panelists will be J. Martin Leland, MD, assistant professor of surgery, and ScienceLife’s go-to expert on sports medicine topics. Leland has worked with professional baseball teams, college athletics programs, and youth athletes of all ages to diagnose and treat sports injuries such as torn labrums and ligament sprains, using physical therapy, non-surgical interventions, or surgical procedures whenever appropriate. But Leland also has an interest in preventing those injuries from happening in the first place, and will present tips on avoiding elbow and shoulder damage from various sports at the Tinley Park program.
“Prevention is very different. You’re thinking of very different things in terms of preventing injuries compared to if you’re trying to rehab one,” Leland said. “If you’re trying to rehab a specific injury, you’re going to have a very specific course. Prevention tends to be a broader strategy.”
As such, Leland identified four areas where injury prevention can be strengthened for athletes of all ages: conditioning, equipment, hydration, and mechanics. Though he’ll expand upon those topics at Wednesday’s event – and will, of course, answer attendee’s questions – here’s a sneak preview of his tips for avoiding the disabled list this year.
“I’ve worked with numerous professional baseball players, some of whom are incredibly flexible, to the point where grown men who are centerfielders in Major League Baseball can do a split at the drop of a hat,” Leland said.
That’s testimony to the importance of stretching and flexibility in avoiding sports injuries – a ritual you can personally observe if you ever show up early enough to watch the warm-ups before a baseball game. But amateur athletes should also be sure to stretch their muscles before any type of strenuous activity, even for a sport like golf that seems distinctly low-impact. People can loosen muscles with an activity as simple as jumping jacks, Leland said, but should make sure that all stretches are “slow, gradual, and progressive,” holding the stretch for at least 30 seconds, and avoiding stretches that could actually do more harm than good.
“You’ll see some people when they’re trying to stretch their hamstrings, they’ll bounce up and down,” Leland said. “That actually increases your risk of injury, and you can strain or tear a muscle doing those stretching exercises alone.”
One of the most important precautions against injuries on the playing field is simply making sure the playing field is as safe as possible. Many youth baseball leagues have started to transition to new magnetic breakaway bases, Leland said, replacing the more common rigid, locked-in-place versions that can cause ankle and leg injuries during slides.
“When you slide into them really hard, the breakaway bases will move out of the way and it’s not like you’re basically sliding into a brick wall,” Leland said.
Another overlooked preventive measure is wearing the right shoes for each sport. Tennis shoes are designed for fast pivots on the court that running shoes are not equipped to handle, Leland said, and wearing cleats while playing baseball or golf can help avoid dangerous slips and falls in messy conditions.
Making sure you drink enough water during physical activity might be the most basic of all suggestions. But casual athletes may not be aware that hydration does more than just prevent stomach cramps and dry mouth, but helps muscles recover from exertion as well. For the weekend golfers, that means going easy at the drink cart, since alcohol’s diuretic effects can accelerate the process of dehydration.
“Playing for 3 hours, your muscles get fatigued and they need proper fluids,” Leland said. “By staying well hydrated you’ll prevent the muscle strains and pulls that can frequently occur at the end of athletic participation when you’re hot, you’re tired, and you’re exhausted.”
Even if an athlete takes all the basic precautionary measures detailed above, improper technique in a pitching motion or a golf swing can eventually result in serious injury. Using an unusual windup may not harm a player in the short-term, but it can gradually put strain on the muscles and ligaments of the arms or legs that eventually results in a major injury.
“If you golf with your back hunched over, if you try to serve with your back arched, if you throw sidearm, or use any other alternative delivery methods in pitching, your incidence of injury is much, much higher,” Leland said. “Proper mechanics are extremely important and it’s the first thing I examine with any patients that come to see me.”
Orthopedic surgeons and physical therapists can now use video and computer analysis to analyze and correct an athlete’s mechanics – a method that will be demonstrated at the Tinley Park event. Leland also stressed the benefits of young baseball players working with a pitching coach knowledgeable about developing healthy mechanics.
“You don’t necessarily need to be an MD to be a good pitching coach, you just need to know the game really well and know what a proper technique is,” Leland said.
Even on the cusp of March, longtime Chicagoans know that true spring weather is likely weeks away. But it’s never too early to start preparing for a year of outdoor competition and fun, Leland said.
“If you’re an active athlete and participate in sports, you need to remember that conditioning and strengthening is not just something that occurs on Saturdays when you’re out on the golf course,” Leland said. “You need to be doing exercises to strengthen your rotator cuff and stay in good shape throughout the year, so that you don’t’ get injured when you do get out there.”