Thumb UCL Injury (Skier’s Thumb)

A UCL injury, also known as skier's thumb, is a tear or sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in the thumb, causing instability and pain in the thumb. Learn more about ulnar collateral ligament thumb injuries from the Hand/Wrist experts at Resurgens.

What You Need To Know About a UCL Injury

What is a UCL Injury?

The ulnar collateral ligament, or the UCL, keeps your thumb stable and aids in actions like holding a cup of coffee, gripping a pen, or pinching a piece of fabric. Positioned along the inner side of your thumb's MCP (metacarpal-phalangeal) joint, the UCL plays a crucial role in supporting these essential motions.

A UCL tear often results from overextension or forceful bending of the thumb during sports or intense physical activity, leading to thumb instability and pain. A thumb with a torn UCL struggles to perform regular actions like grasping, gripping, or pinching, which can impact your day-to-day activities.

While this issue isn't visible externally, its symptoms can be apparent to the sufferer. You may experience difficulty in executing simple tasks due to the associated pain and instability caused by a UCL thumb injury. In the sporting world, it's earned the nickname "skier's thumb," as the injury often occurs when skiers fall and their hand is trapped in the ski pole, causing the thumb to hyperextend away from the hand.

If you believe a UCL tear is compromising your quality of life, it may be time to seek professional assistance. Our experts at Resurgens Orthopaedics specialize in hand and wrist conditions.We are ready to help restore your thumb's function and your peace of mind schedule an appointment with our Hand and Wrist experts today.

What Causes a UCL Injury?

At the root of a UCL injury, you'll often find trauma as the primary culprit. This condition commonly occurs when direct trauma to the thumb forces a sudden twist or bend backward or to the side. Picture your thumb being forced to bend in an unnatural way from your hand with excessive force. That's precisely how a UCL tear is caused.

Being an athlete or regularly participating in high-impact activities such as basketball, football, baseball, racket sports, or snowboarding can increase your risk of a UCL injury. And, as the name "skier's thumb" suggests, the thumb is particularly vulnerable to a UCL injury when the hand is strapped to a ski pole.

Apart from skiing or other high-impact sports, a thumb UCL injury can also be linked to a fall onto an outstretched hand that causes the thumb to deviate away from the palm.

UCL Injury Symptoms

When the UCL injury occurs, there are several distinct symptoms that can help identify the injury. The onset of this condition is typically marked by a sudden bout of pain or a sensation of popping or tearing on the ulnar side of the thumb. Post-injury, you might observe or experience:
  • Bruising

  • Swelling

  • Stiffness

  • Instability in the thumb

  • Weakness in the thumb

  • Limited range of motion

These symptoms might not always be accompanied by pain. Your thumb may feel unusually loose, and it may become difficult to grasp or grip objects. Furthermore, you might experience tender swelling at the web space between your thumb and index finger, an area where pain and weakness may intensify when gripping or pinching something.

It's important to pay close attention to these symptoms and consult with your doctor promptly if they persist. Delayed treatment of a UCL tear can potentially lead to chronic pain, instability, diminished hand function, and even early onset arthritis.

How is a UCL Injury Diagnosed?

At Resurgens Orthopaedics, we adopt a comprehensive approach to diagnose conditions like UCL tears. The journey to recovery begins with our physicians reviewing your medical history, supplemented by a discussion about the onset of the condition. Subsequently, a physical examination is conducted to gauge pain levels, evaluate the range of motion, and assess the stability of the joint.

To assure a definitive diagnosis and to rule out other potential conditions, the physician will order imaging after the physical exam. For accuracy and ease, we utilize state-of-the-art hand diagnostic testing to accurately determine the nature of the injury.

UCL Injury Treatment

At Resurgens Orthopaedics, treatment of a UCL injury is carefully calibrated based on the severity and nature of the condition. Our treatment methods span a range of non-surgical and surgical options, and we work diligently to tailor the best recovery plan for you.

Non-Surgical Treatment

Non-surgical treatments are typically employed for most UCL injuries. The primary aim is to immobilize the thumb and facilitate healing, which can be achieved with a splint or cast. Rest is crucial in this phase, especially avoiding activities that stress the hand or involve gripping movements. Application of ice and compression bandages can help alleviate swelling.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can be used to manage pain. Physical therapy involving gentle exercises can help reduce stiffness and enhance mobility in the thumb joint. This conservative treatment can often yield significant improvements.

Surgical Treatment

When it comes to more severe UCL injuries, especially those involving a complete tear of the ligament, non-surgical methods might fall short. In such instances, surgical intervention becomes necessary. The surgery typically involves repairing the torn UCL and reattaching it to the bone using sutures, grafts, or even a screw for anchorage. This outpatient procedure has a high success rate and can expedite the restoration of thumb movement and stability. Post-surgery, patients may need to wear a cast or splint for a few weeks to aid recovery.

If you think you're suffering from a UCL tear that is interrupting your daily life, schedule an appointment with a Resurgens Hand and Wrist physician today.

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