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UTSA professor wants to prevent shoulder and elbow injuries in adolescent baseball pitchers

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Sakiko Oyama wants to prevent shoulder and elbow injuries in teen baseball players. The UTSA kinesiology professor studies the science of upper body movement, injury prevention and rehabilitation using state-of-the-art assessment equipment in her biomechanics laboratory.

According to Oyama, baseball pitchers ages 14 through 18 are often susceptible to shoulder and elbow injuries due to overuse and stress on their bones and muscles. The prevalence of these injuries among teen players has even given rise to the terms “little league shoulder” and “little league elbow.” The injuries are most common in pitchers but can occur among other baseball players that throw balls repeatedly during practice and competition.

“Baseball is a popular sport for young people,” Oyama says. “It’s also one that has a lot of potential for injury. Pitchers, in particular, are the most likely to suffer musculoskeletal injury, and one of my main goals is to reduce the injury rate as much as possible.”

“Injury in adolescent players develop due to interaction of three factors: overuse/over-pitching, poor technique, and suboptimal physical characteristics, such as tightness or muscle imbalance,” explained the UTSA researcher. “Injury risk in pitchers may be reduced by mitigating these causes of harm through monitoring of pitching activity, technique, and their body.”

In the laboratory, Oyama is identifying ways to assess that limit before injury happens.

She and other researchers study the rehabilitation and prevention of upper extremity pain and injury using state-of-the-art equipment such as cutting-edge motion capture equipment, computers that can visualize and analyze motion, and sensors that can detect acceleration and movement in 3-D spaces.

They have worked with athletes like pitchers and swimmers, with patients who have chronic diseases like diabetes, with manual wheelchair users, and with desk and manual repetition workers.

In 2013, the UTSA researcher published a paper highlighting the impact of trunk—lower body—motion on joint stress and pitching performance. She found that excessive tilting of the trunk and improper rotation of the shoulders and hips can increase stress on the shoulder and elbow joints. These and subsequent findings were used to provide recommendations to coaches and athletic trainers about the way they evaluate baseball player’s risks of injury.

Oyama is now to taking her research one step further. Using an inertial measurement unit—a sensor that integrates an accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer to detect movements in 3-D space—she is working to create a specialized device that can detect real-time changes to pitchers’ technique.

Most youth leagues have guidelines that limit the number of pitches that each pitcher can throw in a game to prevent injury and overuse of certain parts of their bodies. However, each player has a unique limit for how many pitches he or she can safely throw, a threshold that varies by age, developmental level, level of fitness, athletic ability and technique. Furthermore, the number of pitches that a pitcher can throw can change depending on the amount of rest allowed since he or she pitched the last time, fatigue, and activities outside of baseball. 

“Our hope is that this device could help coaches find the pitch limit for individual players and warn them when a pitchers’ technique is changing due to fatigue,” said Oyama. She is currently collecting data on local youth and adolescent league pitchers ages 9-13 and 14-18, respectively. “We are collecting movement data using the inertial measurement unit as the pitchers perform up to 120 pitched in a simulated game.”

Oyama earned her Ph.D. in Human Movement Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the director of the UTSA Applied Biomechanics Research Laboratory, housed in the College of Education and Human Development.

UTSA is ranked among the top 400 universities in the world and among the top 100 in the nation, according to Times Higher Education.

Photo courtesy of University Communications

View the original story on UTSA Today:


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