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Chris Sale UCL Q&A




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blog-0901016001584666681.pngChris Sale Tommy John Q&A

Heezy 1323


It has been reported that Chris Sale of the Boston Red Sox will undergo UCL reconstruction surgery, also known as Tommy John surgery. Sale has not pitched in a live game since August 13, 2019. He then went on the Injured List on August 17 and did not return for the remainder of the 2019 campaign. He was reportedly seen at that time by several of the best-known US surgeons who care for pitchers and a decision was made to hold off on surgery, and instead try a platelet rich plasma (PRP) injection. He finished the 2019 season with a 6-11 record and ERA north of 4.00, significantly below the standard he had established throughout his excellent career. This is on top of the fact that Sale has yet to even begin his 5-year, $145 million contract extension. Sale will now miss whatever portion of the MLB season is played this year, as well as potentially some part of the 2021 season.


A number of questions can often surround a decision such as this, so let’s cover a few things that readers may find helpful.


(Disclaimer: As per the usual, I am not an MLB team physician. I have not examined Sale or seen his imaging studies. I am not speaking on behalf of the Red Sox or any other team. This article is for educational purposes only for those who might want to know more about this injury/surgery or about how these types of decisions get made.)


Question 1: What is this injury? How does it occur?


The ulnar collateral ligament (or UCL) is a strong band of tissue that connects the inner (medial) part of the elbow joint. (Figure 1)



UCL figure 1

UCL cadaver



Though it is relatively small (about the size of a small paper clip), it is strong. The native UCL is able to withstand around 35 Nm (or about 25 foot pounds) of force. However, by available calculations the force placed on the elbow when throwing a 90mph fastball exceeds this, at around 64 Nm. How, then, does the UCL not tear with each pitch? Fortunately, there are other additional structures around the elbow that are able to ‘share’ this load and allow the UCL to continue to function normally (in most cases). The flexor/pronator muscles in the forearm are the most significant contributor. The geometry of the bones of the elbow also help.

In many cases, the UCL is not injured all at once (acutely), but rather by a gradual accumulation of smaller injuries which lead to deterioration and eventual failure of this ligament. When the ligament is injured, it obviously does not function at 100% of its normal capacity- in which case the other structures around the elbow are required to ‘pick up the slack’ in order to continue throwing at the same speed. This is why when a pitcher reports a ‘flexor strain’, there is concern that the UCL is not functioning properly – the muscles of the forearm are being forced to work overtime to compensate for a damaged UCL.

There are also cases where the ligament does fail suddenly. These are often accompanied by a ‘pop’ and immediate significant pain.


Question 2: What do players report as the problem when their UCL is injured?


Most commonly, players report pain with throwing at the inner part of the elbow as the most pronounced symptom. However, other symptoms can also be present including loss of throwing control/accuracy, inability to fully move the elbow, swelling, numbness or tingling of the hand and more. Symptoms can be significant almost immediately, or they can begin very subtly and slowly increase over time. Once they have reached higher levels of baseball, most players are aware of this type of injury (thanks to efforts toward education for coaches, athletic trainers and others) and are able to recognize symptoms and report them to the appropriate personnel.


Question 3: Once the player is concerned about an injury to the UCL, what happens next?


Most commonly the player will be examined by an athletic trainer or team physician to assess the injury and direct further treatment. Often, xrays will be performed of the elbow to assess the bones of the elbow joint for any abnormalities. There can sometimes be bone spurs, small fractures, bone fragments or other findings on these xrays. However, much of the time the xrays are normal and an MRI may be performed to further assess the situation. An MRI allows us to see the soft tissues around the elbow in addition to the bones. Specifically, we are able to look more closely at the actual UCL itself, the surrounding muscles as well as get a closer look at the nearby bone. (Figure 2)


Screenshot 2020 03 19 20.00.16


The MRI helps the treatment team get a sense of the integrity of the ligament, which allows for the next step in the process: deciding how to treat the injury.


Question 4: How are UCL injuries treated?


This is where the challenges often really begin. Much of the time, the UCL will appear abnormal on MRI. There are a handful of grading systems that are used to classify these injuries (one of which, incidentally, I helped create), though there isn’t one that is universally used or agreed upon. Generally speaking, they try to separate injuries into those that are partial tears or complete tears and also try to identify the specific location of the damage. The damage can occur at the upper end of the ligament (called the humeral end), the middle (called midsubstance) or at the lower end of the ligament (called the ulnar end). In those cases where there is a complete tear of the ligament (meaning that the ligament is no longer in continuity and attached at both ends), there is near universal agreement that surgery is typically necessary to allow that athlete to return to competitive throwing activities. The problem, however, is that most MRI’s show a partial injury to the UCL. These injuries can be extremely difficult to predict how they are going to respond to a chosen treatment. In addition, athlete A can have an MRI that looks much more abnormal than athlete B, yet the symptoms of athlete B are substantially worse. This is the basic cause of the uncertainty as it pertains to treatment for this injury.


There has been tremendous research performed attempting to quickly identify ways to reliably separate those throwers that are going to need surgery from those that will not. Indeed, with pitchers such as Sale, there can be tens or even a hundred million dollars plus at stake. However, to date there is not a perfected method that can be used for every athlete to make this surgery vs. no surgery decision.


Question 5: What non-surgical options are available?


There are primarily two non-surgery options available to these athletes, and I’ll attempt to briefly cover them here.


A) Physical therapy- the commonly used ‘rest and rehab’ method. This is probably the most important component of any treatment plan, and a good therapist who has specialized training in the care of overhead athletes is critical. Often, the athlete is prescribed rest from throwing in order to allow the UCL an opportunity to ‘settle down’ any inflammation and perhaps perform some healing of the injured tissue. In addition, as we discussed above, the muscles of the forearm contribute to stability of the elbow joint. Strengthening these muscles (along with a number of other muscles throughout the body) contributes to ‘protecting’ the UCL from further injury. As the recovery progresses, a return to throwing program is initiated, usually starting with a small number of throws from a short distance and gradually progressing to longer throws with greater effort and eventually throwing from the mound (for pitchers). This hopefully results in a more well-balanced and mechanically sound athlete who is more evenly distributing the forces of throwing across the various anatomic structures involved.

B ) Platelet rich plasm (PRP)- This is a product that is obtained from the athlete’s own blood which is drawn and then spun in a centrifuge to separate the blood into its components. The portion of the blood which contains the platelets is then taken and injected at the site of injury to the UCL. This injection includes a number of chemical signals (called cytokines) that regulate healing and inflammation (along with many other things). The injections are thought to help with healing of these partial UCL injuries. The available data on this is mixed, with some studies showing improved results with PRP and others showing no difference. In the linked study, the rate of ‘successful’ non-surgical treatment was 54% (including both PRP and non-PRP athletes).


Question 6: How is the decision to proceed with surgery made?


This is probably the most challenging part of the evaluation process of UCL injuries. There are a tremendous number of factors which play a role in this decision. These include the specific characteristics of the athlete (such as age, position, role, contract status, stage of career, desire to continue playing and several others); exam and imaging findings (understanding that these are frequently ambiguous); as well as response to previous non-surgery treatment (to name a few). Often more than one expert opinion is sought, particularly when it is a big name/big contract player. Usually, surgeons will speak with a number of people when considering options including the athlete and family, team doctors and staff, team officials, and other experts (who may or may not have seen the patient themselves). In my experience in these situations, the vast majority of the time there is a consensus amongst those involved how best to proceed. Occasionally there will be differing opinions, in which case the athlete often has to make a choice on how to proceed.


Question 7: Why didn’t Sale just go ahead with surgery last fall?


I suspect that this is a question that many Red Sox fans are wondering about right now. As discussed above, these decisions are typically difficult and have many contributing factors. While it may seem as though ‘rest and rehab’ never works and everyone should just go ahead and have Tommy John surgery at the first sign of trouble, that is not really borne out in the data. There is some variance depending on the definition of ‘successful return to play’ used in any particular study, but for the most part the rate of success of Tommy John surgery in pitchers is around 80-85%. That means about 1 in 5 never make it back to pitch. This may not seem like bad odds, but I submit that your opinion might change if it was your elbow (and livelihood/contract) at risk. As they say, hindsight is always 20/20.

In the case of Sale, I suspect that the season being shortened by the unusual circumstances of coronavirus this year likely also played a role. Once it became clear that a full season would not be played, the decision may have been easier.

I think I’ll stop there for now (if anyone has continued to read this far…). If people are interested in technical aspects of how the surgery is performed, please let me know in the comments an I’d be happy to do another post about it. I have spare time currently, as you might imagine.


Stay safe everyone, and please listen to the medical professionals who are trying to help us combat this virus. It is a serious threat to our way of life, and we need to treat it as such in order to minimize the damage. Thanks for reading.



Recommended Comments

Thanks much for this Heezy. I always really enjoy your articles. I have an intramedullary nail (called a rod when "installed" in 1991) in my right tibia from a tib/fib mess, and a had a plate screwed onto my right ulna from 1992 to 2018, and have spent many hours in medical journals, pretending to educate myself. The two hip replacements in 2016 also made me dig in. Your discussions always fascinate me. I for one welcome a technical a surgery discussion, and anything else you would ever want to offer. Thanks again. 

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This blog entry really gets buried. I couldn't find it today, and then I went to my content, and posts (since I knew I had commented and that would be quick, right?)..... and the comment didn't even show up there! Had to go to your personal page, and finally found it from the blog tab. This really needs moved to the article page, especially in these times of no baseball......

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Thanks much for this Heezy. I always really enjoy your articles. I have an intramedullary nail (called a rod when "installed" in 1991) in my right tibia from a tib/fib mess, and a had a plate screwed onto my right ulna from 1992 to 2018, and have spent many hours in medical journals, pretending to educate myself. The two hip replacements in 2016 also made me dig in. Your discussions always fascinate me. I for one welcome a technical a surgery discussion, and anything else you would ever want to offer. Thanks again. 

Thanks for the kind words- good to know my stuff isn't putting everyone asleep :)


I'd be happy to do a surgery focused article. Lots happening at my hospital/practice in the past 24 hrs, so I'll see what I can do... stay tuned.


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