Tag Archives: ligaments

Ankle Sprains: An Epidemic in the World of Athletics

Have you ever been out running on a gorgeous fall day, only to have the run cut short by a painful misstep on a tree root covered by leaves? I have, and let me tell you – it’s awful! And even if you aren’t a runner, according to the Sports Medicine Research Manual, ankle sprains are a common, if not the most common, injury for sports involving lower body movements. Now, the solution to preventing this painful and annoying injury could be as simple as avoiding tree roots and uneven ground, but the real problem behind ankle sprains deals with the anatomy of the ankle.

The ankle is made up of many ligaments, bones, and muscles. However, when sprained, it is the ligaments that are mainly affected. Connecting bone to bone, ligaments are used to support and stabilize joints to prevent overextensions and other injuries. The weaker a ligament is, the easier it is to injure. There are three main lateral (outer) ligaments supporting the ankle joint that can become problematic: the anterior talofibular ligament, the calcaneofibular ligament and the posterior talofibular ligament. According to a study from Physiopedia, these lateral ligaments are weaker than those on the interior (medial) of the ankle, with the anterior talofibular ligament being the weakest.

An image depicting the various ligaments of the ankle, both lateral and medial.
Anatomy of the ankle, highlighting the lateral and medial ligaments

The next question that has to be asked is why are these ligaments so much weaker than other ones? The answer to this question is based on their physical make up. Ligaments are made of soft tissue that has various collagen fibers running parallel to each other throughout it. The more fibers there are, the more structure and rigidity there is. Think of the fibers as a rope: The rope can stretch to a certain point, but once it hits that point it will snap and break. But if you have a thicker rope (such as the medial ligaments), it becomes much harder to break.

The ligaments on the outer part of the ankle have fewer collagen fibers than those on the inside of the ankle. Thus, when the ankle is moved in an awkward position, it is more likely that the lateral ligaments will break.

Once you sprain your ankle, the focus turns to treatment. Treatment will differ slightly for every individual depending on the severity of the ankle sprain. The simplest way to treat a sprained ankle is to follow the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) method. Other forms of treatment include taping the ankle or using a brace to restrict movement and to add support and extra stability. Wearing proper footwear is another way that one can prevent and help treat a sprained ankle, as certain shoes are specifically designed to help avoid such injuries. To prevent future ankle sprains, exercises are recommended to help strengthen and stabilize the joint and surrounding ligaments and muscles.

For more information on ankle anatomy and sprains, check out these articles on BOFAS and SPORTS-Health.

What is Tommy John surgery?

Baseball card of Tommy John for the Los Angeles Dodgers
From Zellner, “A History and Overview of Tommy John Surgery,” Orthopedic & Sports Medicine Specialists

In July of 1974, Tommy John, pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, felt a twinge in his throwing arm, and could no longer pitch. Dr. Frank Jobe tried a new kind of surgery on John’s elbow, and after missing only one season, Tommy John returned to the mound in 1976 and continued pitching until 1989.

How?

The surgery which bears Tommy John’s name is by now a common buzzword in the baseball community. Over 500 professional and hundreds of lower level players have received this treatment, but even the most avid fan may still be unsure what it means.

Tommy John surgery is the colloquial name for surgery on the Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL). This ligament is vital to the elbow, especially in the throwing motion. Injury to the UCL accrues over time; fraying and eventual tearing occurs after repeated and vigorous use. Baseball pitchers, throwing around 100 times per game and at speeds upwards of 100 mph, put themselves in danger of UCL injury.

Location of the Ulnar Collateral Ligament in the human arm, shown on a baseball pitcher.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Tendons in the elbow joint, with the Ulnar Collateral Ligament marked
Image from Wikimedia Commons

What can be done when a player injures his or her UCL?

Prior to 1974, not much. Ice and rest, the most common suggestions, would do little to improve serious UCL damage. A “dead arm” spelled the end of a player’s career. Dr. Jobe would change that. 

Jobe removed part of a tendon from Tommy John’s non-pitching forearm and grafted it into place in the elbow. John’s recovery required daily physical therapy before slowly starting to throw again.

Since Jobe’s pioneer surgery on Tommy John, most patients undergo a similar kind of reconstruction procedure. A tendon from either the forearm (palmaris longus) or the hamstring (gracilis), is looped through holes drilled in the humerus and ulna, the bones of the upper arm and inner side of the forearm. In some modern cases, the hope is to repair the UCL with a brace that lets it heal itself rather than total replacement. This allows for faster recovery time because the new blood vessels that have to form in traditional ligament replacement are unnecessary. In either case, athletes recovering from UCL surgery, a procedure which itself takes less than two hours, typically require at least a year to restore elbow stability, function, and strength.

Some misconceptions about Tommy John surgery exist. One 2015 study found that nearly 20% of those surveyed believe the surgery increases pitch speed. However, increase in pitch speed may be affected more by the extensive rehabilitation process rather than the new tendon itself.

The study also found that more than a third of coaches and more than a quarter of high school and collegiate athletes believe the surgery to be valuable for a player without an injured elbow. This perception of Tommy John surgery makes it seem like a superhuman kind of enhancement, as if out of The Rookie of the Year, or worse, it becomes like a performance enhancing drug. In reality, a replacement UCL at best replicates normal elbow behavior. A procedure capable of creating a superhero might be attractive, but for now, Tommy John surgery just helps players get back in the game.

 

For further information:

 

How Many MLB Players Have Had Tommy John Surgery?

What Makes Someone More Likely to Tear Their UCL?

It takes a lot to make a professional athlete collapse to the ground during a game. After throwing a pitch on September 14, 2019, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Tim Mayza knelt on the side of the mound while clutching his arm, expecting the worst. The next day, MRI revealed that what he had feared: Mayza had torn his Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL).

player following through after throwing baseball
Photo by Keith Johnston on Unsplash

Because of UCL reconstruction, or Tommy John, surgery, this injury is no longer the career death-sentence that it once was, but there is still a long road ahead for Mayza. He probably will not pitch in a game again until 2021. Sadly, this injury is only becoming more and more common among MLB pitchers. In the 1990s, there were 33 reported cases of UCL tears by MLB pitchers. In the 2000s, this number more than tripled to 101. From 2010 to the beginning of the 2015 MLB season, 113 UCL reconstruction surgeries had already been conducted. It has become so common that surgeons have called it an epidemic, and researchers in the US and abroad are attempting to find a way to combat this increase.

Digital image of elbow joint, with a small, red tear in the UCL
Orthopaedic and Neurosurgery Specialists, 2019

The UCL connects the ulna and humerus at the elbow joint, and its purpose is to stabilize the arm. During the overhead pitching motion, the body rotates in order to accelerate the arm and ball quickly, putting a large amount of stress on the UCL. In fact, according to a study by the American Sports Medicine Institute, the torque, or twisting force, experienced by the UCL during pitching is very close to the maximum load that the UCL can sustain.

Recently, many studies have investigated factors that could make pitchers more susceptible to UCL injuries, with a hope of identifying ways to prevent them. One of the biggest findings has been the correlation between UCL tears and pitch velocity. According to a study from the Rush University Medical Center, there is a steady increase in the frequency of UCL tears as max velocity increases. This makes intuitive sense, as more torque would be required to accelerate a baseball to the higher velocities. While this finding does have a very strong correlation, it does not help the players avoid injuries. Pitchers are unlikely reduce their velocity because it would also decrease their effectiveness, so another answer must be found.

The University of Michigan conducted another study, and found that, in addition to velocity, the number of rest days between appearances decreased by just under a full day for pitchers who later needed Tommy John surgery. While this does not seem like a large number, starting pitchers typically only receive 4 days of rest between starts, so the extra .8 days is equivalent to a 20% increase in rest time.

Because of these findings, the MLB has increased the max roster size from 25 to 26 for the 2020 season, with the hope that teams will use the extra player to reduce the frequency that each pitcher is used. In addition, pitch counts in Little League Baseball have had a positive effect on youth injuries. This can be explored further here. This discovery has already made a tangible impact on Major League Baseball, and hopefully more findings will reduce the rate of UCL tears in the future.

Brace yourself… You might need surgery

A surgery? For my PCL? Could be more likely than you think.

Usually hiding behind it’s annoying and commonly ruptured brother the ACL, the PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) is a durable ligament that usually doesn’t cause problems for athletes… until it does.

Because of the strong nature of the ligament, injuries that tear the PCL are usually sudden and traumatic. Think car accidents, falling hard on a bent knee… you get the picture. When enough force is applied to the top of the tibia, the tibia can be pushed backwards, past the threshold of the PCL. Even though the PCL does its best to hold your femur and tibia together in the right spot, it just doesn’t hold up to the brute force of a dashboard. These injuries can usually be diagnosed by the presence of a “sag.” When your doctor holds your bent knee up, it looks like your shin bone is sagging underneath your knee. This is your torn PCL crying for aid.

A photo showing the location of the PCL and ACL inside of the right knee. The ACL crosses from left to right over the PCL. Both are attached at the top to the femur and at the bottom to the tibia.

When it comes to fixing these injuries, the nonsurgical approach has typically been recommended for low-grade tears that don’t totally rip the PCL apart. These braces are attached to the leg right above the knee, and are supposed to hold the bottom part of your leg under the knee in place. This prevents from your knee from going too far forwards and backwards, and allows scar tissue to build up over your PCL. While your body tries to heal itself with scar tissue, you will work with a physical therapist to build up your quad strength and restore your range of motion. Over 80% of athletes are able to return to play after bracing their knees.

A PCL brace is shown in place on a knee. There are two stabilizing straps above the knee, and two below the knee. They are connected by a metal frame that meets at a hinge joint over the side of the knee.

However, surgery, which was once only reserved for extreme PCL tears, is now seen as a viable, cost-efficient option for even low-grade tears. PCL surgery is intended to restore normal knee biomechanics and stability to about 90% of their post-injury strength. Sometimes, a part of the Achilles tendon is used to create a graft, or a “new” PCL. This is called an allograft, and results in safer and shorter surgeries (8). Within a month, the athlete can walk and bear their own weight. After six months, athletes are able to return to sports.

In theory, surgery sounds like the most “permanently good” option there is for fixing your PCL. However, no scientific studies have yet been done that can accurately compare the return-to-play rates, or even the relative healing of people in braces versus people who immediately got surgery. When people don’t comply with their treatment plans (aka, take off their braces early, skip physical therapy after surgery, etc.) the data for comparisons between bracing and getting surgery aren’t clear. While your PCL may be out of commission, so is the jury on this one. At the end of the day, the best treatment method for you is dependent on the mechanism of injury, severity of your injury, and whether you plan on listening to your doctor or not!

For more info on PCLs:

Posterior Cruciate Ligament Injury

Management of PCL tears

Do you have an ACL?

Whenever there is a lower extremity injury in sports, the first thing people always ask is: “Was it the ACL?” I, like everyone else, assumed everyone had an ACL because I did not believe that you could walk without one, let alone play sports. To my surprise, I discovered that not everyone has an ACL. Some people are born without one, while others lose their ACL’s. Hines Ward, an NFL All-pro wide receiver, went his whole football career without an ACL. Ward lost his ACL during an accident when he was about 4 years old and the doctors were unaware. He did not find out that he did not have an ACL until he was making the transition from college to the NFL.

 

Being born without an ACL it is referred to as the congenital absence of the anterior cruciate ligament and is an extremely rare condition. Only about 2 in every 100,000 live births are subject to this congenital absence of the ACL. It is caused by an insufficient development of the knee joint when a baby is in the womb. Others do not have ACL joints due to a complete rupture of the ligament. There was a case of a 25 year old woman who had instability in her left knee joint and had no history of knee trauma. Physical investigations showed no swelling or tenderness, but after an MRI it was discovered that she had no ACL joint and the PCL was hypoplastic.

 

The knee is essentially a hinged joint that is held together by the medial collateral (MCL), lateral collateral (LCL), anterior cruciate (ACL) and posterior cruciate (PCL) ligaments.

labelled structure of the knee. Shows the quadricep muscles, quadricep tendons, patella, femur, tibia, fibula, Patellar tendon, meniscus, MCL, PCL, LCL, and ACL

Perry, Pig Knees And Rising Youth ACL Tears, 2018The ACL is a major ligament in the knee that connects the femur (thigh bone) to the tibia (shinbone). The ACL is similar to an actin filament. It has a rope-like structure and is best loaded under tensile loading. The ACL prevents forward movement of the tibia on the femur, as well as hyperextension, which is the straightening movement of the knee that goes beyond the normal range of motion in the joint. By preventing these motions, the ACL provides stability to the knee joint and allows for dynamic motions. Without this stability in the knee joint, humans would not be able to walk normally, let alone perform complex movements done in sports.

picture of actin filament with the plus and mins ends labelled
Mechanobiology Institute, What are actin filaments?, 2018.

 

People with knee joints that lack ACL’s tend to develop a knee joint where the femur bone fits into the tibia a bit like a shallow ball and socket joint. A knee joint without an ACL uses the meniscus to perform the same function. The meniscus is a tough rubbery cartilage that normally acts as a shock absorber between the tibia and fibula. In order for their meniscus to serve the same function as the ACL, the meniscus undergoes deformation to make it better suited for tensile loading. More information about ACL’s can be found here.