Baseball pitcher back on the mound after shoulder repair surgery, PT

August 28, 2023 | by Kate Gawlik, RN

Not every injury, nor every patient, is the same, even if they both have torn their shoulder’s labrum.

Zahab Ahsan, MD, an orthopedic surgeon fellowship-trained in sports medicine, and Dawn Williams, DPT, ATC, CLT-LANA, a physical therapist, both at Edward-Elmhurst Health, helped Caleb Arndt get back to his pitching career after an injury by focusing on Arndt’s specific pitching needs.

“Each athlete presents to us with a unique injury and a concrete set of goals that we set out to achieve with an individualized surgical and post-surgical plan,” Dr. Ahsan says. “Caleb’s goals to return to high-level pitching and doing so in a timely manner were paramount in establishing his treatment algorithm.”

Arndt came to Dr. Ahsan about two weeks before the start of his college baseball debut as a left-handed pitcher. He had left shoulder pain and felt a pop during a pitch. After an initial X-ray showed a cyst, an MRI revealed Arndt’s labrum was torn.

Arndt was given the option to play through, knowing he would need surgery eventually, or to repair the labrum with an arthroscopic shoulder stabilization procedure followed by physical therapy (PT). He was told recovery would take nine to 12 months. For Arndt, who opted for surgery and to sit out his first year of college baseball, recovery came faster.

“Caleb was an optimal patient, in that he was compliant with his HEP (home exercise program), really focused on his technique during each therapy session and put in 100% effort each day,” Williams says.

“Caleb remained positive and focused on the rehabilitation process and not just the injury. We talked about expectations and timelines throughout his therapy sessions, and as a result he had realistic expectations and goals that he could focus on each week.”

A speedy return to pitching

About two months after his surgery, Arndt began to slow pitch, at about 45 feet. He steadily backed up for a farther pitching distance, and in May, he started throwing off the mound. In June, just about four months after his surgery, Arndt pitched a game for Rhino Sports Academy’s collegiate team. He’s set to return to Morton Community College’s baseball team this season.

“After I graduate from Morton this year, I hope to transfer so I can study sports marketing and play more baseball,” Arndt explains. “I want to play and coach baseball as long as I can because I know I can share my injury knowledge with other players.”

Arndt credits his mound return to selecting a knowledgeable surgeon and a devoted physical therapist. Williams’ commitment and words of wisdom in particular kept him on track, with Arndt saying, “Dawn helped me understand how serious the injury was and how to prevent it in the future. She has made me a better pitcher.”

Setting personal goals in physical therapy

A large aspect of Arndt’s PT was to focus on avoiding reinjury, which Williams says is common when patients improve so fast. For Arndt, he was able to progress each week based on symptoms until he was strong enough to return to throwing off the mound.

The next step was re-starting with his fastball (a basic pitch) and progressing to a more advanced pitch (change up and breaking pitches). Williams says they also discussed his mechanics to determine if there were any issues with his previous mechanics that lead to his injury. The coaches were involved in the new techniques, as well.

“I focus on what the patients' goals are and what they are trying to accomplish with therapy. Some patients simply want to be able to complete their ADLs (activities of daily living), and other patients want to be able to play sports at the next level. So each patient needs to have a different approach based on their goals,” Williams explains.

Williams was a perfect match for Arndt because she herself knows how to recover from a surgery—or nine.

She says, “I have had two ACL surgeries (one on each knee) and a shoulder surgery that involved AC joint reconstruction, labral and rotator cuff repair, and five surgeries on my forearm and hand. I have a personal understanding of what my patients are going through both physically and mentally as they move through the rehabilitation process from injury to stepping back on the field.”

Dr. Ahsan adds, “Caleb and his family engaged in a very thoughtful decision to proceed with shoulder surgery based on the timeline and his individual goals. Each athlete in our practice has the opportunity to engage in this shared decision-making process and establish a detailed plan.

I attribute the impressive return to pitching primarily to Caleb’s hard work and determination along with an enhanced physical therapy process. Integral to his recovery was the role of Dawn Williams, whom I admire for her superb skillset and exceptional dedication to patient care and rehabilitation.”

The orthopedic team of experts at Edward-Elmhurst Medical Groups-Orthopedics provides exceptional orthopedic, sports medicine and podiatry services for patients of all ages. We use the least invasive treatments necessary to help you get back to the activities you enjoy, as quickly as possible. Learn more.

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