There has been a rise in elbow ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) injuries in youth pitchers over recent years. With forearm flexor-pronator mass fatigue, the dynamic stability provided could be diminished placing greater stress on the UCL. Pitch count limits have been instituted in an attempt to help curtail this rise in throwing injuries, especially in youth athletes. In order to provide more objective data regarding current pitch count limits for youth pitchers, the purpose of this pilot study was to evaluate for potential fatigue of the flexor-pronator mass by assessing changes in medial elbow laxity, noninvasively characterizing changes in muscle glycogen storage within the forearm flexor-pronator mass, and evaluating changes in subjective fatigue, strength, range of motion (ROM), pitching velocity, and accuracy with increasing number of pitches thrown by 10-year-old pitchers up to their recommended 75 pitch count limit.
After appropriate power analysis, male pitchers 10 years of age were recruited for the study (n=22). Pitchers threw a total of 75 pitches divided into sets of 25 pitches, with standardized periods of rest in between throws and sets to best simulate a game. Bilateral medial elbow laxity was measured by applying 10 decanewtons of valgus force with a standardized stress device and utilizing ultrasound imaging prior to pitching and after each pitching set. The change in medial ulnohumeral joint distance after stress was applied was calculated from baseline without stress. Relative changes in muscle glycogen storage, detected as changes in echogenicity, within the flexor carpi radialis (FCR) and the flexor digitorum superficialis (FDS)/flexor carpi ulnaris (FCU) muscles were measured non-invasively with ultrasound-based software and recorded as fuel percentile. Repeated measures analysis of variance and post-hoc testing were used to determine statistical significance (alpha=0.05).
There were no significant differences in medial elbow laxity between arms or time points. There was a trend for similar decline in FCR fuel percentile values between each arm, indicating relative decreases in glycogen storage bilaterally. However, only the throwing arm demonstrated a statistically significant decline in fuel percentile from baseline to after 75 pitches (p=0.05). There were no statistically significant differences across time points for FDS/FCU fuel percentile values. Fatigue measurements for both arms were significantly higher at all time points compared to baseline (p=0.03). Grip strength of the dominant arm after 75 pitches was significantly decreased compared to after 25 pitches (p=0.02). There were no statistically significant changes in other strength measurements, ROM, velocity, or accuracy between all time points.
By the recommended 75 pitch count limit in 10-year-olds, subjective fatigue and a decrease in grip strength had occurred. Furthermore, relative glycogen storage of the flexor-pronator mass of the throwing arm decreased between pitching 50 to 75 pitches, but without an increase in medial elbow gapping. This study provides a foundation and raises questions for further objective testing of physiologic changes that occur throughout increasing pitching to better guide pitch count limits and ensure the safety of young athletes.