Sports performance is definitely affected when an athlete sustains a thumb sprain. As you know a stable thumb is necessary for pinching and grasping activities therefore sports performance in many sports has to be affected.
From an anatomy standpoint the thumb is comprised of two small bones called phalanges and consists of two joints (IP and MCP). These small bones and joints are commonly connected by the ulnar collateral ligament.
This is the ligament commonly torn resulting in an unstable and weak thumb. When an athlete’s grasp is weak sports performance will decline. Common sports where this injury will be a factor is baseball, football, basketball, skiing, wrestling, tennis and gymnastics.
The most common cause of this injury is preventing a fall with an extended arm to reduce the impact. The way you land on the out stretched hand can definitely stretch or tear the ligament. The thumb can also be jammed by contact with another player, the ground or the ball. The sprain is caused by the thumb being bent into an extreme position.
The usual signs are pain, swelling and bruising around the thumb especially over the MCP joint (base of thumb). There is a weakened ability to grasp objects or perform simple tasks as tying shoes or even tearing a piece of paper. There is increased sensitivity and pain even noted with just reaching into pants pockets. You can just see having this type of injury will affect an athletes sports performance!
First line of treatment calls for protection, rest, ice, compression and elevation. Rest is a must and thumb must be protected at all times by taping. Ice applications should be applied for 10-15 minutes every few hours for the first day or two. Wearing a compression bandage and elevation helps to reduce swelling. Later on a thumb support should be customized to prevent the thumb from bending backwards until strength is regained. When the acute phase is reduced the athlete should consult with a hand specialist to get advice on a sports rehab program. This usually consists of mobility and strengthening exercises. Here the specialist will utilize putty, gripping devices, hand exercise balls and specially designed thumb strengthening equipment. The therapist has the option to use certain modalities to accelerate healing such as ultra sound and cold laser. Soft tissue massage is recommended to break down existing scar tissue. A splint to protect the thumb should be worn until the swelling and tenderness is gone. Most athletes are able to return to sport within 4-6 weeks.
If there is a lot of laxity and instability still in the joint it may signify a total rupture thus surgery may be the only option. Surgery involves reconnecting the ligament to the bone with pinning. After the procedure a short arm cast or splint is necessary for 6-8 weeks to allow the ligament to heal. Rehabilitation is then needed to restore mobility and strength.
The final goal is to return to full activity in your respective sport. Athletes must work closely with their hand specialist to determine their readiness to return to full sports performance. Athletes are tempted to resume full activity despite pain and muscle soreness. Returning to full sports performance before regaining full motion, flexibility and strength increases the chance of further injury.