An ulnar collateral ligament injury is an injury to the elbow ligament. It happens due to overuse of one of the ligaments on the inner side of the elbow and can result in tearing the ligament.
The injury is very common in contact sports where athletes have to repetitively stretch their arms or where elbow dislocation occurs. The injury is caused by a force that exceeds the strength of the ligament with activities like throwing or overhead sports being very likely triggers.
Possible complications and treatment
Injuries of this type hold the potential to damage other structures of the elbow and cause elbow stiffness.
In most cases, where the injury is not too serious, ice and pain medications can be used to treat the swelling and discomfort. Ice helps target swelling while medications stop the pain temporarily. Where pain persists, the individual may also get a brace or cast to seek relief.
The surgical treatment for correcting an ulnar collateral ligament injury is called the Tommy John surgery. The procedure derives its name from a surgery performed on the MLB pitcher and LA Dodgers Tommy John for a tendon transplant.
The procedure works by replacing the torn ligament with a graft tendon taken from the hamstring, forearm, knee or foot of the individual. However, the surgery is only recommended for those patients who do not find relief from non-surgical methods.
Athletes who need to engage in grueling overhead throwing activities and whose careers depend on performance are ideal candidates for this procedure.
The surgery involves implanting the graft to the injury site by drilling tunnels in both the forearm and upper arm bones once the elbow is opened up.
Flexor muscles in the area are also opened up where the graft is woven and the reconstruction is performed. Any remaining portion of the original ligament is then attached to the reconstructed ligament.
While it might seem like a lot of work, the surgical procedure takes between an hour and an hour and a half to perform. Most patients are required to stay overnight in the hospital and are discharged the next day.
Post-operative care after this procedure involves keeping the incision dry and clean and not showering for 3 days. The patient also needs to give the elbow a rest for a week with no driving for a minimum of six weeks. Other remedial steps include resting the elbow on a pillow when seated and keep it elevated to minimize swelling.
Most patients will recover from surgery in 6 to 8 weeks with motion achieved in this time without pain.
Rehabilitation consists of gentle exercises such as squeezing a softball while avoiding moving the elbow. With improvement, the patient can advance to an active motion from passive motion.
Once comfortable, the patient can move to engaging the elbow more by working with a fuller range of motion. Care needs to be taken not to cause direct stress to the elbow during recovery.
It usually takes 12 months for returning to normal sports.