By Karin Heineman
SportTechie/Inside Science

In sports such as tennis, softball or swimming, many athletes have a high risk of shoulder injury. These injuries often occur due to overuse, poor technique, or fatigue, among other causes. Baseball coaches in particular can find it challenging to keep an injury-free pitcher on the mound, which is crucial to winning games.

"Their arm strength and their fatigue is critical because they are involved in every play,” said Tim Pfeiffer, a high school baseball coach in Chicago.

In a well-rested pitcher, the bones and muscles in the shoulder move together in a rhythm. But when the muscles are overused and tired, the movements are often thrown out of sync. This can lead to chronic shoulder injuries.

Pietro Tonino, an orthopedic surgeon at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago, and his team have studied a new 3-D motion detection system that would help identify pitchers at risk for shoulder injuries much sooner.

“With this system, you can pick up small differences in this rhythm and say that maybe they’re fatiguing,” explained Tonino.

The tracking system uses sensors placed on a pitcher's arm and shoulder. Each of the sensors contains a 3-D gyroscope, a 3-D magnetometer and a 3-D accelerometer that together collect information about a pitcher’s arm movement and rhythm. If a pitcher's throwing motion shows abnormalities, then they could recommend strengthening exercises or physical therapy for the pitcher before he or she suffers a major injury.

Results from tests of the portable system showed that over 38 percent of players had abnormal rhythm patterns after 60 pitches. Researchers say prevention is the key to keep the MVPs in the game.

"Without them we can't play the game, so, they start and finish every play,” Pfeiffer said.

The tracking system can also be used to detect abnormalities in athletes in tennis, softball and volleyball.

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-- Karin Heineman is executive producer of Inside Science TV