Anyone who plays or watches football knows how disciplined and health conscious the players have to be in order to stay in peak shape over time. Football is such an injury-prone sport, in fact, a 2021 study appearing in the Journal of Sports Rehabilitation estimated that about 68% of NFL players can expect to be on the injury report in some capacity during the course of a 16-game season. That’s more than two-thirds of all players.
Among those injuries, the elbow is one of the more frequently affected joints. Of course, the elbow is also one of the more important parts of the body for playing football, making it imperative that players find the right treatment when they’re having issues. Let’s discuss some elbow injuries in football that might require orthopedic surgery in order to make a full recovery.
Tennis elbow is a painful condition and one of the more common overuse injuries across all sports that occurs when the tendons in your elbow become irritated as a result of tiny tears that form over time. This sort of lingering injury takes a few weeks to recover, and is usually a result of some repetitive motion like throwing, lifting, or hitting. Because of this, although its name may be a bit misleading, tennis elbow can manifest itself in the arms of anyone – not just tennis players.
This was the case with Eagles center Jason Kelce, who had lingering pain in his elbow during the early portions of the team’s training camp. After Kelce had chronic pain for months, the Rothman training staff decided it was best to have him undergo a short procedure prior to the start of the season. Since then, he has had no reoccurring issues and continues to play as one of the best centers in the NFL.
The pain generally runs through the outside of the elbow, but can also extend through the forearm and up to your wrist. And while it’s not the most painful of injuries, it can be a nagging one that keeps you from being able to properly use your elbow during sports or everyday activities.
Normally tennis elbow resolves on its own with rest and ice in the first week or so. However, when untreated for a long period of time, it can become a chronic issue that requires surgery from an orthopedic specialist.
Torn elbow tendon
Most often occurring as a sudden, abrupt injury, a torn elbow tendon (generally the bicep or tricep) is extremely painful, though not as common. Often a result of weightlifting or applying too much pressure to the bicep or tricep, this injury can be one that derails an athlete for a decent period of time – normally about 3 to 6 months.
An injury like this will not heal on its own. Depending on the location of the tear, your doctor will need to go in and reattach the tendon surgically to the appropriate bone it was ripped from. This will ideally be done in the first 1 to 2 weeks from the time of the injury and will require restricted movement in that arm for a few months following surgery.
If you’re an athlete who is constantly throwing, like a pitcher, then you might find yourself with a UCL tear at some point. That’s because, like a few other common elbow injuries, UCL tears are usually caused by repeated stress from quick overhead movement. However, it can also be caused by a single harsh event, such as a fall on an outstretched hand.
The symptoms of a UCL tear are fairly straightforward: most people with this injury describe it as a sudden “pop” in the elbow, followed by severe pain. You’ll likely feel this pain on the inside of the elbow, and can also develop a numbing or tingling in the fingers when propelling your arm forward in a throw.
The good news is that this sort of injury shouldn’t stop you from being able to perform daily activities like carrying groceries or pushing a door open. Most athletes can continue exercising the same way they had before the injury. Of course, because it’s a torn ligament, the only way to make a full recovery is through surgical repair, which usually takes anywhere from 6-9 months, depending on how robust your physical therapy program is.
For elbow injuries, non-operative treatment can be crucial to making a full recovery, even if surgery is required at one point. Here are some of the more standard non-operative treatments for the elbow injuries listed above:
The RICE method
The RICE method is the orthopedic gold standard in recovery for simple injuries. RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compress, and Elevate:
Rest: Following the injury, stop whatever activity it was that caused the injury for an extended period of time, or until the pain subsides.
Ice: Apply ice to the injury for 20-minute periods throughout the day. Do not apply ice directly on the skin.
Compress: In tandem with the ice when possible, you’ll want to put a compression band or some other form of pressure on the injury to help reduce swelling.
Elevate: Keep the elbow above your heart when possible to increase blood flow for faster healing.
Once the inflammation has decreased, seeing a physical therapist is the best way to ensure your elbow heals to full strength. During the course of physical therapy, your trained therapist will help you work on exercises that strengthen the muscles and other soft tissues around the injured area. In most cases, they will also have you work on these exercises during your free time beyond your appointments with them.
One of the easiest forms of non-surgical treatment is the use of pain medications. Normally non-steroidal and anti-inflammatory options are the best, and can be bought over the counter at your local drugstore.
As the most efficient surgical option for most joint injuries, arthroscopic surgery is a go-to for orthopedic surgeons across the country.
Though the specifics vary from injury to injury, the procedure itself is fairly straightforward and minimally invasive. Once the patient is under anesthetics, the surgeon will insert a tiny camera through small incisions into the joint – in this case, the elbow. The surgeon can then use tiny tools to perform the surgery itself. The type of tool being used is dependent upon the type of treatment or repair being performed.
In the case of a torn ligament such as the UCL tear we mentioned, the surgeon will perform what is known as a Tommy John surgery or a UCL Repair. In a Tommy John procedure, the doctor will use a tendon taken from somewhere else in the body (or a donor) to replace the damaged tendon. This procedure generally takes about 9 to 12 months for a full recovery. A UCL repair is a faster recovery where the UCL is secured to the bone with an anchor, and this has a much faster recovery of 6 months.
Dealing with one of these injuries? See an orthopedic specialist.
If you're experiencing any of these elbow injuries and at-home pain treatments aren’t getting you the relief you need, you’ll want to see an orthopedic specialist. Rothman Orthopaedics provides the best joint care in the region, with orthopedic surgeons who are recognized worldwide for their skill, research, and precision.
Serving both the Philadelphia Phillies and Eagles franchises, our team of specialists has been trusted with the joint health of top athletes across the country. If you or someone you know is dealing with any of these injuries, consider calling us at 1-800-321-9999 or by making an appointment online through our scheduling tool.