Elbow Issues

Ulnar Collateral Ligament Injuries

Causes
The ulnar collateral ligament can become stretched, frayed or torn through the stress of repetitive throwing motions. If the force on the soft tissues is greater than the tensile strength of the structure, then tiny tears of the ligament can develop. Months (and even years) of throwing hard causes a process of microtears, degeneration, and finally, rupture of the ligament. The dominant arm is affected most often. Eventually the weakened tendon my rupture completely causing a pop and immediate pain. The athlete may report the injury occurred during a single throw, but the reality is usually that the ligament simply finally became weakened to the point that it finally ruptured.

However, the general profile associated with this injury may be changing. Today, more and more children ages 10 to 18 are affected. Longer seasons with extended practice time and more tournaments increase the risk of UCL injury. Throwing volume, pitch type, and throwing mechanics can all contribute to the problem.

Children have their own unique risk factor in that they have an open growth plate in the elbow called the medial epicondylar physis. Force along the inside of the elbow during throwing is more likely to cause failure at the area of the growth plate than at the UCL. This injury is often termed Little League Elbow. Reconstruction of the UCL may not be needed in this age group unless the injury to the UCL occurs after the growth plate is closed. Sometimes the ligament avulses or pulls away, taking a piece of the growth plate with it. When the condition has been present for some time, the ligament is not all that may be damaged. The entire elbow joint is at risk due to the abnormal forces caused by the repetitive stress injury.

Symptoms
Pain along the inside of the elbow is the main symptom of this condition. Throwing athletes report it occurs most often during the acceleration phase of throwing. If there are loose fragments or uneven joint surfaces, you may also notice popping, catching, or grinding.

Sometimes swelling can be seen along the inside of the elbow. If the ligament was ruptured, there may be bruising in the same area. Some patients have a slight loss of elbow motion. Closing the hand and clenching the fist reproduces the painful symptoms.