As track season sprints past, we begin to see some common overuse injuries and conditions in these athletes. While the vast majority of those seen in track and field affect the lower body, there are several common hand and upper extremity injuries and conditions seen in throwing events such as the javelin, shot put, hammer and discus.
Between weekly practices and weekend competitions, overuse injuries and conditions in throwing events account for most upper extremity injuries in track and field. These overuse conditions often affect the rotator cuff and shoulder labrum. Overuse conditions are those resulting from the repetitive use of a particular limb/joint(s) and are frequently seen in baseball, swim and tennis as well.
Other track and field injuries include ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tears of the elbow (also known as a Tommy John injury) and thumb. Also metacarpal (hand) fractures are seen resulting from repeated stress on the small bones of the hand.
Rotator Cuff Injury
There are four tendons and muscles that make up what is known as the “rotator cuff,” providing coverage around the shoulder joint at the top of the humerus. The rotator cuff holds the arm in place and allows it to move with the broad range of motion we demand not only in everyday activity but also in many throwing sports. This broad range of motion, though, predisposes the shoulder to injury. Repetitive stress on the rotator cuff can cause partial tears and swelling in the tendons. A “high impact” stress, such as the powerful force required in these track and field throwing events, may cause one of the tendons to pull away from the bone or tear.
Rotator Cuff Injury Symptoms and Diagnosis
While most rotator cuff injuries can be slow to develop – producing nagging pain in the shoulder and arm, shoulder weakness and difficulty lifting the arm overhead – sometimes they can be quite sudden. In this case, athletes may feel a “pop,” followed by strong pain and a weakened arm. An orthopedic specialist will assess the injury initially with a physical examination and review of the activity leading up to the injury. This may be followed by a shoulder x-ray, MRI and/or arthrogram. Treatment depends on the severity of the condition and will include a period of rehabilitation therapy. Conservative, nonsurgical treatment is often considered initially. Surgery may be indicated if shoulder instability persists or there is a complete rotator cuff tear.
Shoulder Labrum Tear
Another common track and field throwing injury is a shoulder labrum injury. Among the most commonly diagnosed shoulder labrum condition in athletes involved in throwing sports is known as a SLAP (superior labrum, anterior to posterior) tear. The labrum works to keep the arm bone in the shoulder socket. When the ring of firm tissue that helps to make the shoulder more stable becomes stressed, it can result in a SLAP tear, compromising shoulder stability. Often damage to the labrum occurs in those athletes who are also suffering from rotator cuff injury or weakness.
SLAP Tear Symptoms and Diagnosis
Some of the common symptoms associated with SLAP disorders include a popping, clicking or catching in the shoulder during throwing activity, aching pain and feeling of weakness. Beyond a physical examination, a diagnosis may include an MRI and/or an arthrogram. Occasionally minimally invasive arthroscopy may be used to confirm a tear. If a tear is confirmed, the surgeon may choose to repair it at the same time.
UCL (Ulnar Collateral Ligament) Injury
Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) injuries of the elbow frequently occur in javelin as a result of the throwing motion and stress on the elbow. Also known as a Tommy John injury, it is similar to the stress placed on the elbow in baseball.
The elbow is basically a “hinge” joint allowing not only bending and straightening but also rotation from palm up to palm down. Several important ligaments in the elbow joint facilitate this range of motion, connecting the bones (ulna, radius, humerus) and forming part of a lubricating joint capsule.
Two of the key ligaments for elbow joint stability include the lateral collateral ligament and the UCL, which is also known as the medial collateral ligament because of its location on the elbow (inside).
When overuse of the joint (force on the soft tissue exceeds that of the structure’s tensile strength), such as in a throwing sport like javelin, places stress on the UCL, tears can develop. The ligament stretches and lengthens to the point that it can no longer hold the bones tightly enough during throwing activities.
UCL Injury Symptoms and Diagnosis
Athletes suffering from this type of overuse condition may experience pain along the inside of the elbow, which is worse during the “acceleration phase” of throwing. There may also be swelling, reduced range of motion and feeling of instability in the elbow. Throwers may also have tingling or numbness in the “pinky” and ring fingers and experience difficulty throwing.
Diagnosis includes a physical examination, x-ray and an MRI. Treatment is initially conservative and may include rest, ice and anti-inflammatory medications, along with physical therapy to strengthen surrounding muscles and compensate for the injured UCL. Following this, or in more severe cases, a UCL reconstruction may be indicated. Also known as Tommy John surgery (named for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitcher who first underwent the surgery), the procedure entails taking a tendon from another area of the patient’s body and replacing the injured UCL with it.
Metacarpal (Hand) Fracture
While less common than overuse injuries and conditions, hand fractures can result from the repetitive stress and force placed on the small bones of the hand.
With a total of 27 bones in the hand (14 phalanges, five metacarpal, eight carpal), more than half of the bones making up the entire upper extremity, fractures are inevitable in sports placing extreme and repeated stress on the hands.
One such fracture is known as a metacarpal fracture, which affects the bone at the base of the finger closest to the wrist.
Metacarpal Fracture Symptoms and Diagnosis
Metacarpal fractures will cause immediate pain and possibly visible deformity. The injured finger(s) may swell, and there may be some bruising.
A physical examination and an x-ray will identify the location and severity of the fracture. Treatment is determined based on whether the fracture is “stable” or “unstable” and the extent of injury. More severe cases may require surgery and internal fixation (K-wires or plates and screws), followed by a period of splinting and hand therapy.
Prevention and Treatment
Understanding that adequate rest between practices and events is as important as the training will help reduce the likelihood that an overuse condition will result in a tear or stress fracture. Maintaining balanced strength and conditioning of opposing muscle groups is also an important prevention component.
When symptoms are addressed early, the injury often responds well to conservative treatment.