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  • Writer's pictureDr. Terrell Joseph

How Do You Treat a Torn UCL Thumb?

A tear to the inner thumb ligament, the UCL, is one of the most common thumb injuries treated in our athletic Vail Valley and Summit County communities. A torn UCL can prevent the thumb from effectively performing its daily motions of pinching and grasping.

Here’s how to know if you have a torn UCL thumb and when to seek treatment.

What is a Thumb UCL Tear?

There are two important ligaments in the thumb joint: the outside radial collateral ligament and the inside ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). Together these ligaments help stabilize the thumb as it moves through its grabbing and pinching motions.

When the tissue in the ligament gets stretched too far, the UCL can sprain or tear. This usually occurs after falling onto your hand in a way that forces the thumb away from the palm.

A UCL thumb injury is common in the following sports:

  • Basketball

  • Baseball

  • Racket Sports

  • Football

  • Snowboarding

  • Skiing

A thumb UCL injury can be painful, but the amount of pain will depend on the severity of the injury. Symptoms of a UCL thumb injury include:

  • Pain while moving the thumb

  • Swelling, bruising, and tenderness at the thumb’s base

  • Instability

  • Weakness when trying to pinch or squeeze

  • Deformity on the inside of the thumb (usually a bump)

Although UCL injuries are often obvious, it’s crucial to have imaging tests done to rule out a bone fracture, Stener lesion, or other injuries that could have resulted from the same fall.

Can a UCL Thumb Injury Heal Itself?

A UCL in the thumb can be sprained, torn, or partially torn. Below are the treatment options for each type of UCL thumb injury:

  • Thumb UCL Sprain: Mild thumb UCL sprains can be treated through RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Anti-inflammatory drugs (such as aspirin) will help reduce swelling.

  • Partial UCL Thumb Tear: Partial UCL thumb tears (also called minimally displaced UCL tears) can be treated in a cast. A UCL thumb cast is typically worn for four weeks and then replaced with a removable splint. The splint should be worn until motion and stability are returned.

  • Complete Tear of the Thumb UCL: Complete UCL thumb tears (displaced UCL tears) require surgical intervention to restore thumb function. UCL thumb surgery involves reattaching the ligament to the thumb joint and repairing any fractured bones. Surgical patients will often need to wear a thumb cast or splint as part of their recovery.

With quick diagnosis and proper treatment, the UCL will regain its full function and range of motion. However, untreated UCL injuries to the thumb can lead to thumb arthritis, chronic thumb weakness, reduced thumb function, and other complications.

Doctors Who Treat UCL Thumb

Proper treatment of a UCL thumb injury is essential to ensure that the UCL injury doesn’t worsen or become chronic over time. If you have a UCL tear or thumb sprain, Dr. Joseph and his team at Vail-Summit Orthopaedics & Neurosurgery can help!

Dr. Joseph is an orthopaedic physician who specializes in the hand, wrist, and elbow. Practicing out of three clinics in Summit and Eagle County, he’s become the go-to doctor for torn UCL thumb injuries in our active mountain community.

To schedule an appointment, contact our offices at (970) 476-7220 or through our online appointment request form. Same-day urgent care appointments are often available!

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