By Amy McGorry
Elbow injuries can really throw a curveball to baseball pitchers. That's especially true if the injury's a torn or damaged ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), which usually results in surgery.
But pitchers aren't the only ones who are susceptible. UCL injuries also affect golfers, tennis players, quarterbacks and anyone who plays a sport that involves overhead motions (such as volleyball) or a risk of landing on an outstretched arm (such as hockey).
When Elbows Are A Pain
The UCL is a thick, triangular band located on the inner half of your elbow. It provides stability to the elbow joint -- a task that gets tougher when you're spiking a volleyball or striking out a batter.
The act of throwing produces a force at the elbow that can exceed the limits (or ultimate tensile strength) of the UCL. The ligament relies on the surrounding muscles to help counter this overpowering force. Over time, this repetitive stress can irritate the UCL, muscles and tendons. Swelling may occur. And if the ulnar nerve that runs along the elbow gets aggravated, you may feel numbness down the forearm and into your fingers.
Thanks to a sore elbow, you now find yourself rubbing elbows with orthopedic surgeons instead of your teammates.
Why You're Sidelined
When the UCL is damaged, the elbow lacks stability during a throwing or swinging motion. In the case of a baseball pitcher, his elbow may rotate too much when he throws, affecting his velocity and stamina. He no longer "goes deep" into the game and needs relief, not only from the bullpen but also from the pain.
Similarly, a golfer may experience difficulties with her swing due to the unstable elbow. One little flaw in her swing mechanics creates a bigproblem when hitting off the tee -- and results in one frustrated golfer (although aren't all of us golfers frustrated?).
Damage to the UCL usually requires reconstructive Tommy John surgery, followed by 12 to 18 months of recovery. Poor Tommy John! Baseball fans tend to cringe when they hear the name of the retired major leaguer -- the first person to undergo the procedure, in 1974 -- but they forget he ranks seventh among left-handed pitchers on the all-time career wins list.
In fact, pitchers who undergo the surgery have at least an 85 percent chance of returning to their pre-injury performance level, or better. John won more than half his career games after his surgery and pitched into his forties!
How To Stay In The Game
A little elbow grease can help you avoid UCL injuries altogether. Strengthening certain muscles in the forearm, such as the wrist flexors, can help the ligament overcome strain during a throw.
Strengthening the biceps is important for stabilizing the elbow during the follow-through portion of a throw. Addressing other muscle groups, like the anconeus, triceps and shoulder girdle, can also help you stay off the sidelines.
Here are a few exercises to support that elbow. Do 2 to 3 sets of 10 repetitions using a light weight.
Hold a dumbbell off the side of a table, hand facing up. Bend your elbow and support it with the table. Flex your wrist up and down.
Hold a dumbbell. Point your elbow towards the ceiling and hold the dumbbell near your shoulder. Straighten your elbow, raising the dumbbell towards the ceiling.
Hold a dumbbell with your elbow bent and supported on a table. Alternate slowly turning your palm down and up.
Eccentric Biceps Curls
Hold a dumbbell with your elbow bent. Slowly lower your hand to straighten the elbow.
Always check with a physician prior to starting any exercise program. And remember: You may be sidelined... but not for long!