Monday, February 12, 2007

Looking at the Ulnar

The Ulnar Nerve: An Important Connection

The ulnar nerve is a central component of the arm when it is required to use a motion positioning the elbow at a 90 degree angle. In order to throw a baseball, players must move their elbow through the 90-degree position with violent force and velocity. Since the Ulnar Nerve is activated during elbow flexion it is easy to see how players put constant strain on this particular connective tissue.

The Ulnar Nerve has many different functions that help produce proper feelings and sensations in the arm. First, the tissue is responsible for the feelings on the pinky side of palm, joining with the ring finger as well. Many times, people will say they hit their “funny bone” when an elbow is bumped against a hard object, shooting a tingling sensation to the palm’s pinky side. Also, the nerve assists some of the muscles in the front of the forearm. These muscles are instrumental in helping the hand grip objects with strength applying force back into the palm. Finally, the Ulnar Nerve serves as a connective tissue, along with bone, between the Humerus and Ulna Bone.

For baseball players, the Ulnar Nerve is an important piece to delivering a strong accurate throw. Since the tissue bridges the two bones together during the throw, it is imperative that players keep these ligaments healthy. If not, players will have difficulty using the overhand motion effectively without physical pain. Most recently, in today’s baseball landscape the Ulnar Nerve is one of the most injured areas of current player’s anatomy. In fact, the surgery used to repair the ligament is labeled after a former MLB pitcher named Tommy John. In 2003, it was reported that 75 out of 700 Major League pitchers had the surgery performed on their throwing arms. The Ulnar Nerve becomes stressed during the pitching motion when the ligament is stretched during the acceleration phase. After being repetitively stretched, the Ulnar Nerve becomes strained or compressed if there are significant mechanical flaws in the player’s throwing motion. Also, according to one report, the nerve may experience microscopic tears during the throwing motion that could lead to a partial or complete tear of the ligament.

How to players prevent the Ulnar Nerve from being injured during training or game competition? This is question is a major problem in today’s coaching circles, with pitchers often being injured throughout the year. Often, to solve problems like this, coaches have to look at other areas where the elbow is used in a similar way. Since the overhand throwing motion is so unique, it is difficult to find ways to simulate the movement.

One sport that put athletes into a similar position as the throwing motion is archery. When bow users pull back the tension cord, their elbow has moved through full extension to almost maximum flexion. The arm flexion reaches its maximum point when the bow users forearm touches the bicep at the elbow joint. Upon reaching this position, bow users are ready to fire their bow and arrow at a specific target. Pitchers get to this position in a different way. By breaking the ball from their glove, pitchers usually swing their arm from a low position moving through a flexion positioned by the ear. This is the position closely resembled to bow users.

The tension of the objects held by the athletes is the biggest difference between each sport. The standard baseball weighs approximately 5 ounces, while the tension cord of a bow and arrow can be between 50-100 pounds. The use of each motion varies with pitchers throwing 100-120 pitches every 4th day, as bow users might perform 50-75 tensions pullbacks every day.

Applying this information to the training principle of sport specificity, pulling a bow’s tension cord back could be seen as a valuable training tool for pitchers wanting to maintain a healthy and strong elbow. With the elbow forced to perform pullbacks with constant tension, the muscles and ligaments will gain strength and power. This movement is unique to baseball arm training because it is performed while the athlete is standing. Many times elbow exercises have players either seated on lying in a flat position. Also, due to balance issues, athletes cannot effectively duplicate these movements with dumbbells or free weights while achieving appropriate gains in tension.

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