When Charlie Varriano complained of soreness and achiness in his right throwing elbow, his parents suspected something was wrong. The then 11-year-old star pitcher from Hempfield Township played through the pain, but as the innings and starts added up, it only got worse. He was often told to ice the elbow down or give it a few days’ rest. But no matter what he tried, the pain and soreness returned.
Kim and Patsy Varriano were concerned about their son’s elbow discomfort, and brought him in for an initial consultation with David Stone, MD, a primary care physician at UPMC Sports Medicine. Dr. Stone concluded that the pain was caused by overuse, and referred the Varriano family to his UPMC Sports Medicine colleague, Volker Musahl, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon. Dr. Musahl diagnosed Charlie with osteochondritis dissecans, a joint disorder that affects mostly adolescents.
Dr. Musahl’s first course of action was to get a complete medical history, along with an MRI of Charlie’s elbow.
“He really explained everything easily and in terms we could understand,” says Patsy Varriano, Charlie’s father. “We felt very comfortable with Dr. Musahl.”
Dr. Musahl presented the family with two choices: they could either try to let Charlie’s elbow heal on its own over time, or surgically repair it. Dr. Musahl explained that the elbow would likely never have 100 percent strength if they let it heal on its own, and might be more susceptible to re-injury in the future. With surgery, Charlie would have a better long-term outlook, and would be able to enjoy pain-free baseball. After some research and consideration, they elected the surgery.
On Sept. 30, 2011, Charlie underwent elbow surgery. Dr. Musahl removed cartilage from Charlie’s knee, which he used to repair and fortify the elbow. After surgery, Charlie rested his elbow. Following his doctor’s orders, he didn’t move the arm for three weeks.
Then, eager to get back on the field, Charlie immediately began rehabilitation at UPMC Sports Medicine. He worked with physical therapist Tara Ridge three times a week, on a regimen of exercises, until he regained strength and mobility.
“Tara really made sure I was getting the conditioning and support I needed,” says Charlie. “She would give me exercises to work on at home, and gave me some tips on how to help avoid injury in the future.”
In August 2012, Charlie returned to the baseball diamond. At first, he played different positions, such as outfielder or third baseman, which put less strain on his elbow but still allowed him to test it. But Charlie’s goal of returning to the mound and pitching again was realized in the spring of 2013.
Under the watchful eye of his coaches, parents, and doctors, he now follows a pitch count limit, gives his elbow enough rest, and performs his arm-strengthening exercises at home.
Charlie's summer was packed with games and travel tournaments, including playing in Florida for a competitive national youth team. But he is most grateful just to be able to live his life like a normal 13-year-old again.
“The bottom line is without UPMC Sports Medicine, none of this would be possible,” says Charlie. “Not just baseball, but my everyday life. I can play with my little cousins, go fishing, play dodge ball, and just enjoy life again without pain.” His mother, Kim, echoes that sentiment. “We’re so grateful to Dr. Musahl and Tara for helping Charlie get back to doing what he loves.”
And for Charlie and the experts at UPMC Sports Medicine, that was exactly the goal from the beginning.