Common Reasons Athletes Might Need Hand Surgery
Summit Orthopedics hand surgeon Lauren Smith, M.D., discusses some of the most common reasons for hand surgery among athletes of any sport.
Before going to medical school, Summit Orthopedics hand surgeon Lauren Smith, M.D., was an athlete. She swam competitively and earned a spot on the University of Minnesota swim team. Her main races were the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke, but she also swam the 200-meter butterfly. Today, as a fellowship-trained hand surgeon, Dr. Smith works with athletes who have upper extremity injuries that may require surgery. Here are some of the most common reasons athletes might need hand surgery, no matter which sport they compete in.
Common reasons athletes need hand surgery
“I see a lot of tendinitis among athletes,” Dr. Smith said. Tendons are strong, thick cords that attach your muscles to your bones. They can become irritated and inflamed, causing pain near a joint. This condition is called tendinitis.
Common forms of tendinitis include:
- Tennis elbow — The formal name for tennis elbow is lateral epicondylitis. It’s an inflammation of the tendons that join your forearm muscles to the bone on the outside of the elbow.
- Golfer’s elbow — Also called medial epicondylitis, golfer’s elbow is inflammation of the tendons that attach your forearm muscles to your bone on the inside of the elbow.
Learn more about tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow.
Generally speaking, tendinitis in the hand, wrist, or elbow is caused by repeated, forceful gripping, pulling, and lifting. With hours of practice each week to refine and improve their performance, it’s easy to see why tendinitis is a common injury for all kinds of athletes, from baseball and softball to golf, tennis, basketball, lacrosse, and weightlifting.
How does tendinitis lead to hand surgery for athletes?
“The inflamed tendon can compress the nerves leading to the hand,” Dr. Smith said. “Fortunately, we can often manage nerve compression symptoms nonsurgically first.”
Conservative care measures for tendinitis include:
- Resting the affected arm, which may mean making changes to workout or practice schedules
- Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen [Aleve])
- Reviewing your sports equipment to make sure it is fitting properly
- Participating in a course of physical therapy
- Undergoing steroid injections
- Using a forearm brace to take pressure off the affected arm
If these measures don’t bring relief after six to 12 months, your doctor may recommend surgery to resolve the nerve compression. Tendinitis may also be surgically treated by debriding and/or reattaching the tendon if it doesn’t improve without surgery.
Importance of hand therapy for athletes with tendinitis
It’s important to work closely with physical therapy and occupational therapy to protect your hands, wrists, and elbows. For athletes who have had hand surgery, a specialized hand therapist can make a big difference as well.
“I’m delighted that Summit has hand therapists on the team. They are experts in the nuances of the hand, wrist, and elbow, which are highly complex,” Dr. Smith said. “Hand therapists are a great resource for anyone with a hand, wrist, or elbow injury, whether or not you’re an athlete.”
At Summit, physicians, providers, and therapists work together closely to deliver a high level of care coordination. “Since the hand therapists are right down the hall, we can discuss details about the surgery and the patient’s needs so that everything is seamless for the patient and the therapist has the best possible information to develop a treatment plan for therapy,” Dr. Smith said.
Like a sports team, Summit’s team-based approach ensures athletes can give their best — on the court, on the field, or in the pool — each day.
Lauren L. Smith, M.D.
My patient care philosophy is to create a partnership with my patients by making a treatment plan that best works for them and their goals.
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