All Work and No Play Makes Katie RSI Prone

Last night saw Tim Wakefield pitch his 200th major league baseball win. For those of you who just went “who the heck is Tim Wakefield?”, or “baseball?” or “200th ?”, don’t panic, I’m not going to ramble on about how awesome the Red Sox are, or how much I can’t stand A. Rod…oh sorry! I’m losing you…

What I DO want to talk about is the human body, an incredible feat of engineering. In particular I want to focus on our joints and how we abuse them. Tim Wakefield has been a major league pitcher for almost 20 years, making him one of those resilient individuals who have managed to push his body to the limit for an extremely long time.

The most common pitching injury is repetitive stress, and ultimately tearing, of the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) of the elbow. Given the stress exerted as a pitcher throws, it’s actually surprising that more athletes haven’t managed to destroy their UCL. Check out this slow motion video of the long-haired Tim Lincecum pitching:


There are ways to avoid messing up your elbow. Youth pitchers are limited to around 60 pitches a game with two days off in between matchups, and the last couple of years has seen major league clubs limiting their players to around 100 pitches a game with four or five intervening off days. There have also been major medical advances. L.A. Dodgers pitcher Tommy John, who went under the knife in the mid 1970s, was the first success story of Dr. Frank Jobe. He developed a technique (now known as Tommy John surgery) for transplanting a donor UCL from a recently deceased individual into the afflicted pitcher’s elbow. In some cases the surgery is so successful that players pitch better AFTER the surgery! Indeed, John went on to pitch for another 15 years.

But baseball players aren’t the only people susceptible to repetitive strain injury. As Dora noted back in June, even scientists can be struck down by this unfortunate malady.

Of course the name gives it away rather; repetitive stain injuries result when you overuse part of your body to the point that you seriously injure it. Common activities that induce RSI include hunching over your computer (neck/back) and repeated motions at work such as pipetting or chopping (hands and arms). I’m sure you now appreciate why RSI is rife within the scientific community. Indeed I’ve recently noticed my eppendorf-cap-flipping-open thumb is becoming increasingly stiff…

From an evolutionary perspective it totally makes sense. Until very recently we spent our time hunting and gathering our food and caring for our offspring, activities that were constantly changing and required strength, endurance, and fitness. In our modern lives we rarely find the time to exercise as much as we should, and perform tasks that our distant ancestors would be totally bemused by (e.g. pipetting colorless liquids from one tube to the next and then spending three hours analyzing data on a computer). Not only are we are inflicting unusual stresses on our bodies, we are unable (or unwilling) to strengthen our bodies to tolerate these stresses better.

Anyway, I have digressed significantly from my starting point…so…um…GO SOX!!


Katie Pratt is a graduate student in Molecular Biology at Brown University. She has a passion for science communication, and in an attempt to bring hardcore biology and medicine to everyone, she blogs jargon-free at Follow her escapades in the lab and online on Twitter.



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UPDATE: Congratulations to Timothy Hiles – winner of this week’s Mind the Gap!

About the winner: Tim is a wide-eyed gipper looking for the truth to reality through social, technical, and geographical history.

About the prize: In addition to fame and glory beyond their wildest dreams, winners receive our new hot-off-the-presses large (15 oz) BenchFly mug to help quench their unending thirst for scientific knowledge… or coffee.



Miss a previous edition of Mind the Gap? Shame on you! Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered:

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To Boldly Go Where No Worm Has Gone Before

Another One Bites the Dust: Rinderpest Eradicated

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3 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Tim

    wrote on September 14, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    Ulnar Collateral Ligament?

  2. [email protected]

    wrote on September 14, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    Jackpot! We've got a winner!

  3. Tim

    wrote on September 14, 2011 at 2:37 pm


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