Updated: 2/18/2022

Thumb Collateral Ligament Injury

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  • Summary
    • Thumb Collateral Ligament Injuries, most commonly ulnar collateral (UCL), are athletic injuries that lead to a decrease in effective thumb pinch and grasp.
    • Diagnosis relies upon thumb MCP radial-ulnar stress exam and MRI studies.
    • Treatment involves anatomic repair or reconstruction which reliably restores the essential function of the collateral ligament.
  • Epidemiology
    • Incidence
      • ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) injury is 10 times more common than radial collateral ligament (RCL) injuries
      • UCL injuries comprises of 86% of all athletic thumb injuries
    • Demographics
      • acute injuries are common in many contact and non-contact sports
        • football, soccer, downhill skiing
        • eponymously known as a Skier's thumb
      • chronic injuries due to attenuation of the ligament under repeated stress
        • eponymously known as a Gamekeeper's thumb
  • Etiology
    • Pathophysiology
      • mechanism of injury
        • radially-directed force causing hyper-abduction moment at the thumb MCP
          • i.e. stationary ski pole and strap contacting the moving skier's thumb into hyper-abduction
      • pathoanatomy
        • Stener lesion
          • avulsed ligament with or without bony attachment is displaced dorsal and superficial to the adductor aponeurosis
            • usually the distal end is retracted proximally
          • the interposed adductor will not allow healing without surgical repair
        • Stener-like RCL lesion rare given overlying abductor aponeurosis
          • RCL injury leads to joint subluxation rather than overt instability
  • Anatomy
    • Osteology
      • thumb metacarpal and phalanx form the metacarpophalangeal joint
      • metacarpal condyles more flattened than finger metacarpals which increases stability
    • Ligaments
      • both UCL and RCL composed of
        • proper collateral ligament
          • resists load with thumb in flexion
        • accessory collateral ligament and volar plate
          • resists load with thumb in extension
        • both ligaments run in dorsal to volar direction from proximal to distal
        • valgus laxity in both flexion and extension is indicative of a complete collateral rupture
      • RCL is compose
    • Biomechanics
      • diarthrodial joint but allows for six degrees of movement
        • flexion-extension, adduction-abduction, and rotation
      • static stability provided by bony anatomy, collateral ligaments, volar plate and dorsal capsule
      • dynamic stability provided by extrinsic and intrinsic muscle groups
        • extrinsics
          • extensor pollicis longus, extensor pollicis brevis, flexor pollicis longus
        • intrinsics
          • abductor pollicis brevis, flexor pollicis brevis, adductor pollicis
        • ulnar-sided tendinous/aponeurotic insertions more robust than radial
  • Classification
      • UCL/RCL Instability Grading
      • Grade 1
      • Sprain with no joint instability (incomplete tear)
      • Grade 2
      • Asymmetric joint laxity but endpoint present (incomplete tear)
      • Grade 3
      • Joint instability without endpoint and 30-35 degrees of joint space opening or 10-15 degrees more than contralateral thumb (complete tear)
  • Presentation
    • History
      • fall on outstretched hand and abducted thumb
      • ball or racquet strike
    • Symptoms
      • common symptoms
        • pain at ulnar aspect of MCP joint worse with pinch or grasp most common for UCL tear
        • radial-sided MCP pain most common complaint for RCL tear
    • Physical exam
      • inspection
        • rarely visible deformity of joint
      • palpation
        • tenderness at site of ligament injury (distal for UCL and proximal for RCL)
        • tender mass signifying Stener lesion
      • motion
        • radial-ulnar stress exam
          • stress both at extension and 30° of MCP flexion
            • avoid allowing phalanx to rotate
          • radial instability in 30° of flexion indicates injury to proper UCL
          • radial instability in extension indicates injury to accessory and proper UCL and/or volar plate
          • local anesthetic may be added to eliminate patient guarding
      • provocative tests
        • anterior and posterior drawer
          • metacarpal held stationary and phalanx translated anteriorly and posteriorly
          • amount of translation and absence of an end point may signify volar subluxation and RCL rupture
        • weakness with resisted pinch
  • Imaging
    • Radiographs
      • recommended views
        • PA
        • lateral
        • oblique
      • optional views
        • stress views
          • controversial
          • may aid in diagnosis if a bony avulsion has already been ruled out
      • findings
        • UCL injury
          • avulsion or condylar fracture
          • Sag sign
            • supination of proximal phalanx relative to the metacarpal
          • volar subluxation of proximal phalanx
            • seen on lateral view
            • indicates associated dorsal capsular tear or extensor tendon injury
        • RCL injury
          • pronation of proximal phalanx
    • MRI
      • indications
        • can aid in diagnosis if exam equivocal
      • sensitivity and specificity
        • 100% sensitivity and specificity
    • Ultrasound
      • accuracy is operator-dependent
      • sensitivity and specificity
        • 76-88% sensitive, 81-83% specific
        • 81% accuracy, 74% positive predictive value, 87% negative predictive value
  • Diagnosis
    • Clinical and MRI
      • diagnosis made by history and physical exam (thumb MCP radial-ulnar stress exam) and confirmed with MRI studies.
  • Treatment
    • Nonoperative
      • immobilization for 4 to 6 weeks
        • indications
          • Grade 1 and 2 partial UCL and RCL tears
          • < 15° side to side variation of varus/valgus instability
        • outcomes
          • excellent rate of return to sport without residual laxity or disability
    • Operative
      • RCL/UCL repair
        • indications
          • acute Grade 3 injuries with
            • >15° side to side variation of varus/valgus instability
            • >30-35° of opening
          • Stener lesion
        • outcomes
          • >90% with outcomes rated excellent for UCL repair
          • 96% good to excellent outcomes for RCL repair
      • reconstruction of ligament with tendon graft
        • indications
          • chronic injury (older than 3-8 weeks)
          • incompetent ligament tissues
        • outcomes
          • 92% satisfaction rate in one series
      • adductor advancement
        • indications
          • acute UCL rupture
            • done in conjunction with UCL repair
        • outcomes
          • 100% return to sport reported in one series
      • MCP fusion or adductor advancement
        • indications
          • chronic injuries
          • salvage procedure for failed repairs or reconstructions
  • Techniques
    • Immobilization for 4 to 6 weeks
      • technique
        • immobilization in splint or cast to off-load injured UCL or RCL
        • some protocols advocate for use of removable splint and immediate active and passive range of motion
          • patient must avoid stress on ligament during exercises
        • grip and pinch strengthening began around 4-6 weeks
    • RCL repair
      • approach
        • straight longitudinal incision on radial aspect of the thumb
        • abductor aponeurosis may need to be resected to expose joint capsule and ligament
        • take care to spare dorsal cutaneous branches of the radial sensory nerve
      • technique
        • pull-out sutures or loaded suture anchors can be used to re-oppose the ligament to its origin
        • repair MCP joint capsule and abductor tissues
        • K-wire may be placed to immobilize the joint temporarily
    • UCL repair
      • approach
        • S-shaped or chevron incision overlying MCP joint
      • technique
        • trans-osseous sutures, suture anchors with or without suture augmentation, and direct ligament repair to periosteum all described
      • rehab
        • joint immobilization leaving the IP joint free
        • strengthening begun at 4-6 weeks
      • complications
        • skin necrosis if pullout suture technique used
        • decreased pinch strength
    • Tendon reconstruction with tendon graft
      • approach
        • S-shaped or chevron incision overlying MCP joint
      • technique
        • multiple techniques described using various tissues sources, configurations and fixation constructs
        • palmaris longus autograft weaved through bone tunnels
          • can be secured with interference screws, cortical button or suture anchors
    • Adductor advancement
      • approach
        • S-shaped or chevron incision overlying MCP joint
      • technique
        • adductor aponeurosis repaired to native distal insertion of UCL
    • MCP fusion
      • approach
        • dictated by prior surgeries and concomitant pathology
      • technique
        • various fixation methods (k-wire, compression screws, plates)
        • MCP fused in 15 degrees of flexion
  • Complications
    • Stiffness
      • incidence
        • MCP and IP stiffness most common complication following repair
    • Persistent instability
      • incidence
        • 15% with residual instability for grade 3 injuries treated with immobilization
      • treatment
        • ligament reconstruction for chronic injuries
    • Superficial radial neurapraxia
      • numbness distal to incision
      • treatment
        • observation
  • Prognosis
    • Prognosis 
      • return to play rates approach 100% following anatomic repair
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Questions (5)
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(SBQ17SE.78) A 27-year-old competitive skier fell one week ago onto his right hand. He has had persistent thumb pain with gripping since the fall. He is evaluated in your orthopedic hand clinic and found to have disrupted a ligament in his thumb with the decision for operative intervention. During the surgery, which of the following structures may block your reduction?

QID: 211963
















L 1 A

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(OBQ10.213) Creation of a Stener lesion, as found in Gamekeeper's thumb, requires combined tears of the proper and accessory ulnar collateral ligaments in order for the ligament to be displaced by the adductor aponeurosis. Which of the following most accurately describes the role these ulnar collateral ligaments (PCL/ACL) play in thumb MCP joint stability?

QID: 3306

PCL is primary restraint to radial deviation with MCPJ in flexion, ACL provides restraint to radial deviation with MCPJ in extension



PCL is primary restraint to radial deviation with MCPJ in extension, ACL provides restraint to radial deviation with MCPJ in extension



ACL is primary restraint to ulnar deviation with MCPJ in flexion, PCL provides restraint to ulnar deviation with MCPJ in extension



ACL is primary restraint to radial deviation with MCPJ in flexion, PCL provides restraint to radial deviation with MCPJ in extension



PCL is primary restraint to ulnar deviation with MCPJ in flexion, ACL provides restraint to radial deviation with MCPJ in extension



L 3 C

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