The ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) is a ligament located around the center of the elbow that connects the humerus and ulna bones. The UCL is vital to maintain strength, flexibility, and range of motion in the arm.
In sports, the UCL may be subject to a high degree of stress. A torn UCL used to spell the end to a baseball career. Now, with the surgical advancements made over the last few decades, that is no longer the case.
Causes of UCL Tears
Overusing your UCL may cause injury. In athletes, this occurs during stressful, repetitive motions such as throwing a baseball. To avoid UCL injury, especially in younger athletes, it’s important to monitor pitch counts and other throwing metrics carefully. Other factors that may lead to UCL injury include improper throwing mechanics, lack of arm or shoulder strength, and ignoring elbow pain.
Torn UCL Symptoms
- Pain during throwing motions
- Audible pop in the elbow
- Elbow tenderness
- Pinky or ring finger numbness
Treatment for a UCL Tear
Partial UCL tears may not require surgery. Non-surgical treatment involves resting and icing the injured area. Your doctor may prescribe medication and advise you see a physical therapist. Other, more advanced practices, such as PRP, may be used as well.
Surgical (Tommy John Surgery)
Complete UCL tears may require reconstruction – also known as Tommy John surgery – to heal. UCL reconstruction is performed through arthroscopy, a less-invasive surgical option with quicker recovery and less pain than open surgeries.
Recovering from a Torn UCL
Athletes who receive UCL reconstruction usually spend about a year in rehabilitation, with certain cases extending up to two years.
For those patients with partial tears that elect to forego surgery, a physical therapy program can potentially restore elbow functionality within six weeks.
These timelines will vary based on the severity of your injury, level of care you receive, and your physical therapy program. For more information about your recovery, discuss your treatment options with your doctor.
To learn more about UCL injury and Tommy John surgery, check out our three-part blog series:
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