Ulnar Collateral Ligament

UCL Injury Doctor in Dallas, Texas

The ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) is a ligament in the elbow that most often becomes injured after repeated stress from continued overhead movement. This happens most often in sports like baseball and javelin, which focus heavily on overhead throwing. 

Ulnar Collateral Ligament Anatomy

Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that tether bones together. If a ligament is injured, the tether becomes loose, and the bones move too much. The UCL is located on the pinky, or medial side of the elbow, and attaches your humerus (a bone in your upper arm) to the ulna (a bone in your forearm). 

The UCL is sometimes also called the ulnar collateral ligament complex, due to the fact that it consists of three different bands: the anterior, posterior, and transverse bands. In other words, the front, the back, and the sides. 

Ulnar Collateral Ligament Injury Causes

There are multiple ways that the ulnar collateral ligament could be torn or otherwise injured, such as:

Overuse

Each time you move your arm in an overhead motion, the UCL is stretched. Repetitively placing stress on the UCL, or overusing it, without allowing it time to heal, can result in tears or other injuries that could make use of the elbow very painful.

This is especially common in baseball pitchers, due to the repeated overhead motion of throwing the baseball.

Trauma

Falling on your outstretched arm places all of your force and weight, however momentarily, on your elbow. Your UCL could rupture, or be pulled away from the humerus. 

Ulnar Collateral Ligament Injury Symptoms

The most common signs of a UCL injury are:

  • A sudden “pop” sound, or pain on the inside of the elbow, leading to an inability to continue throwing or moving your arm in an overhead motion. It should be noted that it is possible for children to tear their UCL and that for young pitchers to experience pain in their elbow while throwing is not normal.
  • Pain on the inside of the elbow after a period of increased overhead activity
  • Pain when accelerating the arm forward; when pitching a baseball, this refers to the moment just before you release the ball
  • Tingling or numbness in the pinky and ring fingers 

UCL injuries can be devastating to athletes, as they are very likely to affect your ability to participate in sports which require throwing. But UCL injuries are unlikely to prevent you from doing average daily activities.

Ulnar Collateral Ligament Injury Diagnosis

A UCL injury will likely have to be diagnosed by an orthopedic specialist or a sports medicine doctor. The doctor will likely take a medical history and do a physical examination of you. This physical examination will probably include a valgus stress test, where your elbow will be tested for instability. This is the best way to assess whether or not the UCL has been injured.

Imaging procedures like an MRI scan or an X-ray can also be used to assess UCL damage, but they are not one hundred percent accurate. The majority of the time, your doctor will combine physical examination and imaging technology to confirm your diagnosis.

Ulnar Collateral Ligament Injury Treatment

How your UCL injury is treated depends on your personal goals after recovery. If you are an athlete who wishes to return to a sport like baseball or javelin-throwing, your doctor might recommend surgical repair.

However, if you have injured your UCL in a non-sports related accident, nonsurgical treatments may make more sense for you.

Nonsurgical UCL Injury Treatment

With a nonsurgical approach, the goal is to stabilize the elbow and manage pain associated with a UCL injury. Nonsurgical treatments may include:

  • Rest
  • Anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen
  • Applying ice to the elbow to help with swelling and pain

Once inflammation and pain have decreased to manageable levels, your surgeon will likely recommend physical therapy to strengthen the muscles around the injury. This will help stabilize the bones and compensate for the torn ligament until it is healed.

Surgical UCL Injury Treatment

UCL reconstruction surgery is often referred to as “Tommy John Surgery”, named for the baseball pitcher on whom it was first performed in 1974. 

When performing Tommy John Surgery, your surgeon will take a tendon from somewhere else in your body to serve as the new UCL. The tendon used is most often a hamstring tendon, a big toe extensor tendon, or a tendon from the forearm. Holes will be drilled in the humerus and the ulna in order to attach the new UCL. Pieces of the original ligament may be used to strengthen the graft.

Recovery from an ulnar collateral ligament injury

For nonsurgical treatments, recovery can last several weeks or several months. Your doctor and your physical therapist will work together to help you achieve your desired range of motion in your elbow.

Recovery from Tommy John Surgery usually lasts much longer and can take anywhere from nine months to a year. Your doctor will likely place your elbow in a hinged brace that will allow you to gradually increase your elbow’s range of motion. If you are planning to return to sports, you will need relatively rigorous physical therapy. The key to a successful recovery and return to your sport is to give yourself time to heal; applying stress to the graft before it is completely healed can cause it to fail.

Preventing an Ulnar Collateral Ligament Injury 

If you are an athlete participating in throwing sports, strengthening the muscles and ligaments in your throwing arm and shoulder can play a huge role in preventing a UCL injury. Listen to your body, and give your elbow plenty of rest when you aren’t playing.

At SPORT, we will identify the source of your pain and then utilize state-of-the-art therapeutic techniques that focus on restoring your range of motion.

Depending on the specific condition and its severity, these treatment options may include physical therapy, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, slings and supports, cortisone shots, or shoulder or elbow surgery.

If you have an acute or chronic shoulder or elbow injury that needs medical attention, call SPORT at (469) 200-2832 to arrange a consultation or you can request one online. Hurt today? We can arrange a same-day urgent care visit to ensure you get fast, effective relief.

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