Return-to-Play Outcomes in Professional Baseball Players After Medial Ulnar Collateral Ligament Injuries: Comparison of Operative Versus Nonoperative Treatment Based on Magnetic Resonance Imaging Findings

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Abstract

Background:

The medial ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) is the primary static stabilizer to valgus stress of the elbow. Injuries to the UCL are common in baseball pitchers. In the 1970s, reconstructive surgery was developed. Return-to-play (RTP) rates of 67% to 95% after reconstruction have been reported. There is a paucity of published studies among professional baseball players reporting RTP with nonoperative treatment.

Purpose:

To identify professional baseball players’ ability to RTP after the nonoperative treatment of UCL injuries based on the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) grade.

Study Design:

Case series; Level of evidence, 4.

Methods:

A review of elbow injuries among a professional baseball organization from 2006 to 2011 was performed. MRI was performed on all players. Forty-three UCL injuries were diagnosed. Treatment included rehabilitation, surgery, or both. Rates of RTP and return to the same level of play or higher (RTSP) were calculated and correlated with the MRI grade, location of injury, and player position. MRI grading was as follows: I, intact ligament with or without edema; IIA, partial tear; IIB, chronic healed injury; and III, complete tear.

Results:

Forty-three UCL injuries in 43 players were diagnosed. Eight had complete tears (grade III), were treated operatively with UCL reconstruction, and had an RTP rate of 75% and RTSP rate of 63% (5/8 returned to the same level and 1 to a lower level). All 8 were pitchers. The remaining 35 players had incomplete injuries (4 grade I, 8 grade IIA, and 23 grade IIB), consisting of 24 pitchers and 11 positional players. Of these 35 players, 1 underwent surgery without attempted rehabilitation, 3 initiated rehabilitation until MRI was performed and then underwent surgery, and 3 underwent surgery after failed rehabilitation. The 7 players who underwent UCL reconstruction surgery had an RTP rate of 100% and RTSP rate of 86% (6/7 returned to the same level and 1 to a lower level). The remaining 28 with nonoperative treatment had both RTP and RTSP rates of 93% (26/28 returned to the same level and 0 to a lower level). Of these, 10 were positional players with an RTSP rate of 90%, and 18 were pitchers with an RTSP rate of 94%. Of all players with incomplete UCL injuries who completed nonoperative rehabilitative treatment (n = 31), 26 had a successful RTSP (84%).

Conclusion:

Incomplete UCL injuries in professional baseball players can be successfully treated nonoperatively in the majority of cases. Pitchers are more likely to have complete tears leading to surgery. MRI grading of UCL injuries can help predict RTP and the need for surgery.

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