If you’re a fan of baseball you may have heard that New Los Angeles Angels pitcher, Shohei Ohtani, has a damaged Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) in his pitching arm.
This is bad news for Ohtani, as his career relies heavily on the function his elbow. Although reports show that Ohtani only has a first-degree sprain, consistent use of his elbow can present serious problems down the line.
In the world of physical therapy, elbow pain does not get enough exposure and is often ignored. More often than not, people continue performing their daily activities that can exacerbate injury to the elbow and cause damage to the joint and ligaments.
Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) Injury
As Physical Therapists, we see sports injuries in a different light, especially when they make the news. This post will share some of the intimate knowledge we possess from years of treating a number of injuries and conditions that athletes may face.
The Ulnar Collateral Ligament, located in the elbow, is a complex structure consisting of three bands. It is challenged more when the elbow is in flexion. During full elbow extension, the bony congruity provides additional stability.
Ulnar Collateral Ligament injury is common in many overhead sports. The forces that can lead to injury on the elbow are generated when the elbow goes from flexion to extension at a high velocity. In Ohtani’s case, this would be frequently pitching at a consistent speed of 100 mph.
This injury occurs from repetitive valgus (a condition in which the bone segment distal to a joint is angled outward) stress on the medial (inner aspect) of the elbow. This kind of elbow sprain commonly occurs in baseball pitchers. It is less frequent in racket sports, volleyball, and hockey, but can still occur in athletes playing those sports.
Damage to the ligament can be caused by sudden trauma or a gradual stress. The most typical sign is a pain in the inner elbow while performing a physical activity. Patients commonly describe an elbow sprain as a twinge or sharp pain when pushing up, such as getting up from the chair.
If a ligament is compromised a patient may develop:
- A sense of looseness or instability in the elbow.
- Irritation of the ulnar nerve (aka the “funny bone”): This is felt as a tingling sensation or numbness in the small finger and ring finger.
- Decreased ability to throw a baseball or other object overhead.
Treatment for Ulnar Collateral Ligament Injury
Ulnar Collateral Ligament injury can happen to anyone at any age. Parents and coaches should be aware of the issue and be alert if the child complains of the pain in the elbow.
Physical Therapy is the best first line of defense following this diagnosis. At Park Sports Physical Therapy, our Physical Therapists are skilled and experienced in treating elbow instability and ulnar collateral ligaments tears.
The treatment approach is based on thorough examination and biomechanical analysis of the activity that caused the condition.
- Strengthening weak muscle group
- Activity modification.
- Manual therapy and therapeutic modalities.
In cases of severe damage and instability, the ligament is reconstructed in what is commonly known as a Tommy Johns procedure. Physical Therapy treatment in this case follows an established post-surgical protocol. Our therapists work closely with an Orthopedic Surgeon to optimize post-surgical recovery and achieving the highest functional outcomes.