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Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that hold bones together. In the elbow joint, the ulnar collateral ligament, or UCL, holds the ulna (e.g., lower arm bone) to the humerus (e.g., upper arm bone). When the ulnar collateral ligament gets torn due to injury, the elbow can become unstable.
The ulnar collateral ligament may become stretched or even torn due to a single traumatic episode—or more commonly, repetitive stress, such as throwing a baseball.
It is important for parents, coaches and athletes to understand the risks of pushing too hard in an athletic arena.
Here are a few UCL injury prevention tips for athletes:
With a UCL injury, you may experience:
A torn ulnar collateral ligament is diagnosed by physical examination, which includes taking your medical history. Your orthopaedic surgeon may gently feel your elbow joint to locate the specific area of pain. Or, the surgeon may slightly bend your arm, while applying pressure along the outside of your elbow joint (valgus stress test), or ask you to mimic a throwing motion as he or she resists against it (moving valgus stress test). To provide a definitive diagnosis, your surgeon may order an X-ray or MRI scan to confirm the diagnosis and to rule out other possible damage.
Treatment for ulnar collateral ligament tear ranges from rest and physical therapy to surgery, depending on the severity of the injury. The doctors call it an ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction (UCLR); baseball players and fans call it “Tommy John surgery”—named after the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who was the first to have the surgery in 1974. It is designed to restore medial stability of the elbow, enabling athletes to make a full return to their previous activities.