Like the 2011 regular season, the 2011 post-season has already seen a number of high-profile oblique injuries. Last evening, Tigers DH Victor Martinez launched a solo home run to right field – and strained his oblique in the process. While his status is day-to-day, teammate Delmon Young’s own oblique strain suffered in Detroit’s Game 5 win over the Yankees in the Division Series has revealed that the injury, however mild, can linger for days or, in some cases, weeks. Tigers skipper Jim Leyland is well aware of the anxiety that is coupled with an oblique injury, saying after the series win over New York, “I learned a long time ago when the word oblique is mentioned, I get nervous… I’ve never seen an oblique all right in a day or two. It’s never happened as long as I’ve been managing.”
So, while the Tigers will have to deal with two middle-of-the-lineup hitters nursing tender obliques, it’s an injury that has become all too common in Major League Baseball. Alex Rodriguez, Evan Longoria, Jason Bay, J.A. Happ, Curtis Granderson, Brian Wilson, Jair Jurrjens, and Ryan Zimmerman are some of the players who were slowed by oblique injuries in 2011, with Zimmerman drastically altering his throwing mechanics to minimize the risk of future injury to the oblique, and in the process, he struggled through the worst defensive year of his career according to UZR.
Oblique injuries may also be termed abdominal strains, rib cage strains, or intercostal strains (the intercostal nerves are the thoracic spinal nerves that serve the oblique muscles). The oblique muscles are the largest group of muscles in the torso, extending down from the lower armpit and rib cage to the pelvis on the sides of the body. For a baseball player, or any athlete for that matter, these muscles serve as a crucial bridge from the upper to lower body. And, in a sport as physically rotational as baseball, the oblique muscles are fired, flexed, stretched, and strained on every swing, pitch, or throw.
There are several theories that attempt to explain the spate of oblique injuries in MLB. LA Dodgers head trainer Stan Conte told the NY Times in April that he felt the increase in the injury was due to the fact that players, more than ever before, are transitioning too quickly from off-season mode to spring training to regular season games, and the large abdominal muscles simply break down. He notes that, since 1991, one-third of all oblique injuries have occurred in April.
The most interesting theory, however, comes as a result of the more stringent MLB Drug Policy. While players are no longer taking illegal steroids, they are turning to the dietary supplement creatine, which is both legal and ubiquitous in MLB. Sports physician Lewis Maharam told the NY Daily News in April that creatine can help build lean muscle and improve explosiveness, but the supplement also adds water molecules to muscle fibers, which can cause the fibers to separate, which in turn, leads to muscle tears and strains.
As Delmon Young’s mobility in the OF has shown anyone with vision, the oblique strain is not a “tape it up and get out there” type of injury. It’s an all-consuming, debilitating ailment that will certainly hinder the Tigers chances against the Rangers in the ALCS. For the sport’s sake, more research on the causes of the injury is needed and better training methods need to be indoctrinated. Baseball is at it’s best when the best players are on the field.