Shoulder Injuries in the Throwing Athlete

Overhand throwing places extremely high stresses on the shoulder, specifically to the anatomy that keeps the shoulder stable. In throwing athletes, these high stresses are repeated many times and can lead to a wide range of overuse injuries.


When athletes throw repeatedly at high speed, significant stresses are placed on the anatomical structures that keep the humeral head centered in the glenoid socket.

The phases of pitching a baseball.
Reproduced and adapted with permission from Poss R (ed): Orthopaedic Knowledge Update 3. Rosemont, IL. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 1990, pp 293-302.

Of the five phases that make up the pitching motion, the late cocking and follow-through phases place the greatest forces on the shoulder.

  • Late-cocking phase. In order to generate maximum pitch speed, the thrower must bring the arm and hand up and behind the body during the late cocking phase. This arm position of extreme external rotation helps the thrower put speed on the ball, however, it also forces the head of the humerus forward which places significant stress on the ligaments in the front of the shoulder. Over time, the ligaments loosen, resulting in greater external rotation and greater pitching speed, but less shoulder stability.
  • Follow-through phase. During acceleration, the arm rapidly rotates internally. Once the ball is released, follow-through begins and the ligaments and rotator cuff tendons at the back of the shoulder must handle significant stresses to decelerate the arm and control the humeral head.

When one structure — such as the ligament system — becomes weakened due to repetitive stresses, other structures must handle the overload. As a result, a wide range of shoulder injuries can occur in the throwing athlete.

The rotator cuff and labrum are the shoulder structures most vulnerable to throwing injuries.


Left untreated, throwing injuries in the shoulder can become complicated conditions.

Nonsurgical Treatment

In many cases, the initial treatment for a throwing injury in the shoulder is nonsurgical. Treatment options may include:

  • Activity modification. Your doctor may first recommend simply changing your daily routine and avoiding activities that cause symptoms.
  • Ice. Applying icepacks to the shoulder can reduce any swelling.
  • Anti-inflammatory medication. Drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen can relieve pain and inflammation. They can also be provided in prescription-strength form.
  • Physical therapy. In order to improve the range of motion in your shoulder and strengthen the muscles that support the joint, your doctor may recommend specific exercises. Physical therapy can focus on muscles and ligament tightness in the back of the shoulder and help to strengthen the structures in the front of the shoulder. This can relieve some stress on any injured structures, such as the labrum or rotator cuff tendon.
  • Change of position. Throwing mechanics can be evaluated in order to correct body positioning that puts excessive stress on injured shoulder structures. Although a change of position or even a change in sport can eliminate repetitive stresses on the shoulder and provide lasting relief, this is often undesirable, especially in high level athletes.
  • Cortisone injection— If rest, medications, and physical therapy do not relieve your pain, an injection of a local anesthetic and a cortisone preparation may be helpful. Cortisone is a very effective anti-inflammatory medicine. Injecting it into the bursa beneath the acromion can provide long-term pain relief for tears or other structural damage.
A cortisone injection may relieve painful symptoms.
Reproduced with permission from JF Sarwark, ed: Essentials of Musculoskeletal Care, ed 4. Rosemont, IL, American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 2010.

Surgical Treatment

Your doctor may recommend surgery based on your history, physical examination, and imaging studies, or if your symptoms are not relieved by nonsurgical treatment.

The type of surgery performed will depend on several factors, such as your injury, age, and anatomy. Your orthopaedic surgeon will discuss with you the best procedure to meet your individual health needs.

Arthroscopy. Most throwing injuries can be treated with arthroscopic surgery. During arthroscopy, the surgeon inserts a small camera, called an arthroscope, into the shoulder joint. The camera displays pictures on a television screen, and the surgeon uses these images to guide miniature surgical instruments.

Because the arthroscope and surgical instruments are thin, the surgeon can use very small incisions (cuts), rather than the larger incision needed for standard, open surgery.

During arthroscopy, your doctor can repair damage to soft tissues, such as the labrum, ligaments, or rotator cuff.

During arthroscopy, your surgeon inserts the arthroscope and small instruments into your shoulder joint.

Open surgery. A traditional open surgical incision (several centimeters long) is often required if the injury is large or complex.

Rehabilitation. After surgery, the repair needs to be protected while the injury heals. To keep your arm from moving, you will most likely use a sling for for a short period of time. How long you require a sling depends upon the severity of your injury.

As soon as your comfort allows, your doctor may remove the sling to begin a physical therapy program.

In general, a therapy program focuses first on flexibility. Gentle stretches will improve your range of motion and prevent stiffness in your shoulder. As healing progresses, exercises to strengthen the shoulder muscles and the rotator cuff will gradually be added to your program. This typically occurs 4 to 6 weeks after surgery.

Your doctor will discuss with you when it is safe to return to sports activity. If your goal is to return to overhead sports activities, your doctor or physical therapist will direct a therapy program that includes a gradual return to throwing.

It typically takes 2 to 4 months to achieve complete relief of pain, but it may take up to a year to return to your sports activities.


In recent years, there has been a great deal of attention on preventing throwing injuries of the shoulder.

Proper conditioning, technique, and recovery time can help to prevent throwing injuries. Throwers should strive to maintain good shoulder girdle function with proper stretches and upper back and torso strengthening.

In the case of younger athletes, pitching guidelines regarding number of pitches per game and week, as well as type of pitches thrown, have been developed to protect children from injury.