Thumb Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) Injury

A thumb ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) injury generally occurs when the thumb bends away from the hand. This type of injury to the UCL affects a critical tendon that drives various motor functions in the hand, such as gripping, pinching, or stabilizing. Thumb UCL injuries are often referred to as “gamekeeper’s thumb” or “skier’s thumb,” as those activities are common reasons for developing this type of condition. 

What are the Causes of a Thumb UCL Injury?

Generally speaking, thumb UCL injuries occur when the thumb bends away from the metacarpal-phalangeal (MCP) joint in an unnatural fashion. There are typically three different versions of thumb UCL injuries with different causes:

  • Acute Injuries — External force or trauma forces the thumb to bend away from the hand. This can occur as a result of falling while skiing (skier’s thumb). 
  • Chronic Injuries — Repeated stretching of the thumb extends the UCL beyond reasonable ranges of motion. This can occur as a result of tending to hunting game (gamekeeper’s thumb). 
  • Stener Lesions — A complete tear of the UCL forces the ligament out of position and traps it between the thumb muscles and bone. This is a serious complication of thumb UCL injuries. 

What are the Symptoms of a Thumb UCL Injury?

Depending on the severity of the thumb UCL injury in question, a patient may experience any or all of the following symptoms:

  • Dull or sharp pain when resting or moving the thumb; 
  • Swelling or inflammation in the thumb;
  • Instability or limited range of motion in the thumb; or
  • Reduced thumb strength when gripping or pinching.

How is a Thumb UCL Injury Diagnosed & Treated?

When a patient displays any of the symptoms of a thumb UCL injury, a doctor or medical professional will usually start by inspecting the injured joint. If the thumb is unstable when neutral or flexed, it is often a sign of a UCL injury. After the physical examination, the doctor may also conduct imaging tests, such as an X-ray or MRI, to further isolate the cause of the UCL injury in question. 

After isolating the cause of the thumb UCL injury, a doctor can recommend appropriate treatment methods. For less severe injuries, immobilizing the joint with a splint or cast can allow the condition to heal on its own. For more severe injuries, a doctor may need to conduct surgery to repair and reattach the torn UCL. After immobilization or surgery, physical/occupational therapy is usually helpful to regain strength and functionality. 

Ultimately, thumb UCL injuries are complex conditions that require professional diagnosis and treatment. Patients are not advised to self-treat this type of injury. Instead, a doctor or medical professional should diagnose and treat thumb UCL injuries. 

Do You Need Treatment for a Thumb UCL Injury?

If you are experiencing pain or other symptoms of a thumb UCL injury, it can be tremendously beneficial to contact a trusted orthopaedic doctor. At the Orthopaedic Associates of Riverside, our doctors feature board certifications with a priority for treating thumb UCL injuries and numerous other orthopaedic injuries. Contact us today to evaluate your treatment options for an orthopaedic injury.

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