Did you know that you can throw out your elbow? Injury of the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), a band of connective tissue in the elbow, is the most common type of ligament injury among throwing athletes, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. And an Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine study shows that UCL injuries are increasingly more common.
If you play baseball, softball, or another throwing sport, it’s important to know the symptoms of a UCL injury and how to prevent it. If you damage your UCL, you might need ligament reconstruction. That procedure, known as Tommy John surgery, was first performed on Dodgers pitcher Thomas Edward John Jr., in 1974. Since then, more than 500 Major League Baseball players have undergone Tommy John (TJ) surgery.
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UCL Injury Symptoms
UCL injuries occur over time and are most commonly caused by the repetitive stress of the throwing or pitching motion. However, it’s also possible to injure the UCL through a single event or trauma.
The repeated and substantial force that involves pitching slowly stretches the UCL, breaking down and sometimes tearing the tissue. This inflammation causes symptoms to worsen over time.
Symptoms of UCL injuries include:
- Decreased throwing or pitching speed
- Pain on the inside of the elbow
- A loose or unstable feeling in the elbow
- Numbness in the pinkie and/or ring finger
In the case of an acute, traumatic UCL injury, you may also hear or feel a “pop.”
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Preventing UCL Injuries
By far, pitchers are most at risk for this type of injury. But elbow injuries don’t have to be inevitable, even if you are a pitcher. Experts at the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine say that to prevent UCL injuries, athletes should learn proper throwing techniques from a professional. They also recommend instituting maximum pitch counts, enforcing required rest periods, avoiding pitching on consecutive days, and warming up with easy throws.
Tommy John Surgery
During a Tommy John procedure, a surgeon attaches a tendon to serve as a reconstructed UCL. This tendon is either harvested from another part of the body or from a tissue donor. The purpose of the surgery is to stabilize the joint, reduce or eliminate discomfort, and restore function.
Recovery time depends on many factors. Non-pitchers can expect to be back in the game about nine months after the procedure, but pitchers need at least 12 months before they recover full range of motion and functionality. Recovery for some players has taken up to two years. The good news is that after surgery, you can immediately start physical therapy for the fingers, hand, and shoulder.
To learn more injury prevention strategies, visit UPMC Sports Medicine or make an appointment by calling 1-855-937-7678.
About Sports Medicine
Sports and physical activity bring with them a potential for injury. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury – or improve athletic performance – UPMC Sports Medicine and the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program can help. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our experts partner with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Pitt Panthers, and about 100 other high school, college, and regional teams and events throughout Pennsylvania – working daily to build better athletes.