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Swing for the Fences

Swing for the Fences

Cooper Way has loved baseball since he first picked up a bat at age 6. As a catcher for his high school team, his skills and impressive batting average seemed to position him well for an admirably level-headed ambition: to reduce college expenses with an athletic scholarship.

That goal was jeopardized about three years ago during a tournament game. He was returning the ball to the pitcher when a bolt of excruciating pain shot through his right arm.

“After that, it even hurt to hold a pen,” says Cooper. “Suddenly, I’d pretty much lost the use of that arm.”

Thus began two years of frustration — starting with six months of being unable to play — as Cooper visited doctor after doctor seeking an answer. “The first doctor said nothing was wrong with me,” Cooper says. “He sent me to physical therapy for six months to strengthen the arm. After that, I went back to playing but I still had problems.” He was still performing well enough to get top rankings in successive tournaments, including making it to final tryouts for the USA Baseball Team — all while playing in severe pain.

A neurologist referred him to an orthopaedic surgeon who referred him to another neurologist, and so on. Multiple tests for nerve damage followed and he had so many X-rays he “thought I was going to glow in the dark.” The unsatisfying conclusion was always the same: “It’s just a strain.”

Finally, as the pain was becoming unbearable and Cooper began to fear that a college scholarship was about to be rained out, he was referred to Alexander Weber, MD, assistant professor of clinical orthopaedic surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and expert surgeon at the USC Epstein Family Center for Sports Medicine, who saw Cooper at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital.

The problem was a little more serious than a strain, Dr. Weber found. In addition to tearing his ulnar collateral ligament, Cooper was suffering from irritation of his ulnar nerve. The ligament is particularly important for high-performance overhead throwing athletes, according to Dr. Weber.

“In most cases, the ligament becomes partly or completely torn from overuse,” Dr. Weber says. “Cooper’s situation was even more advanced — the ligament was not only torn badly but the continued attempt to play baseball following the injury caused irritation to the ulnar nerve.” Both the ligament and the nerve would have to be surgically addressed, which would involve reconstructing the ulnar collateral ligament using a strand of tendon from Cooper’s arm and actually relocating the nerve to eliminate further irritation.

High-performance injuries call for high-performance solutions. Fortunately, Dr. Weber is adept at performing ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, also known as Tommy John surgery, in recognition of the legendary major league baseball pitcher and former Dodger whose career it saved.

As advanced as the surgery is, it is an outpatient procedure. Cooper was back at school the next day. However, there were restrictions to his athletic activities for nine months while he rehabilitated and returned to throwing.

While Cooper may seem young to need such advanced surgery, overuse and repetitive overhead athletics injuries are increasingly common in young athletes, Dr. Weber says. Not too long ago, “There were no pitch counts or restrictions,” he says. “Kids were going from one tournament to the next and pitching in multiple games in a weekend.” In 2007, however, the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine spearheaded the STOP Sports Injuries initiative, a national campaign to prevent overuse injuries in young athletes.

Cooper blames his injury on poor form. “I was a pitcher and outfielder for seven years so when I went to catching, my arm motion was way too long,” he says. “So that just strained my arm.”

Dr. Weber, a former student athlete himself, works with many young athletes at high schools in the area that surrounds USC Verdugo Hills Hospital. But the USC Epstein Family Center for Sports Medicine is not just for young athletes like Cooper. “We treat everything from the weekend warrior who plays pick-up basketball to the 85-year-old who has arthritis of the shoulder,” Dr. Weber says. “We are a great first call for anything related to an achy joint.”

Meanwhile, Cooper has experienced a complete recovery. The arm pain and nerve irritation he was having prior to his surgery are gone and his elbow motion is back to what it should be. Now graduated from high school, he is on the California Baseball Academy collegiate team for the summer and will be playing for a college team this fall. He plans to become a teacher and coach baseball at the high school level. 

By Martin Booe

Keck Medicine of USC is the University of Southern California’s medical enterprise, one of only two university-owned academic medical centers in the Los Angeles area.