Elbow Collateral Ligament Insufficiency

Updated: Apr 10, 2023
  • Author: Rahi K Yallapragada, MBBS, MRCS, FRCS(T&O), MCh(Orth); Chief Editor: Murali Poduval, MBBS, MS, DNB  more...
  • Print

Practice Essentials

Elbow collateral ligament insufficiency is commonly seen in sports participants involved in overarm-throwing sports such as cricket, baseball, and tennis. [1, 2] Trauma and postdislocation injuries are other common causes of collateral ligament injury, which can occur on either side of the joint.

An understanding of the normal anatomy is required for diagnosis and successful surgical reconstruction. [3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10]  The elbow is one of the most congruous joints in the body. It consists of three articulations between the humerus, ulna, and radius within a capsule. The medial collateral ligament (MCL) resists valgus force and supports the ulnohumeral joint. The lateral collateral ligament (LCL) prevents rotational instability between the distal humerus and the proximal radius and ulna.

The diagnosis and treatment of elbow instability have been the focus of much basic-science and clinical research. Methods for accurately diagnosing elbow instability continue to evolve. Patient history, physical examination, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), as well as arthroscopic techniques for diagnosis and treatment, continue to play a vital role in differentiating between nonoperative and operative candidates. [7, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17]

Jobe et al first described double-strand reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) with use of a free tendon graft that was secured to the medial epicondyle and the proximal aspect of the ulna in a figure-eight fashion. [5] Several complications are associated with this procedure, such as detachment of the flexor-pronator muscle group, extensive drilling of the medial epicondyle, and transposition of the ulnar nerve. Studies have focused on techniques of UCL reconstruction that minimize the potential for complications, particularly those related to the medial epicondyle and the ulnar nerve. [5, 6, 8, 9, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23]



Anatomic constraints on elbow instability

There are three primary static constraints on elbow instability, as follows:

  • Ulnohumeral joint
  • MCL - This ligament comprises three bundles: the anterior bundle, which is tight in extension and loose in flexion-restraint to valgus rotation [24] ; the posterior bundle, which is tight in flexion and loose in extension; and the transverse bundle, which has a variable presence
  • LCL, especially its ulnar part - The LCL complex (which is characterized by a large amount of variation) includes the radial collateral ligament (RCL), the lateral UCL (LUCL), the accessory lateral collateral ligament (ALCL), and the anular ligament (AL)

There are four secondary restraints on elbow instability, as follows:

  • Radial head and capsule - The anterior capsule prevents hyperextension of the elbow
  • Common flexor and extensor origins
  • Flexor-pronator and extensor-supinator groups (stabilizing against valgus and varus stress, respectively)
  • Dynamic stabilizers - These are the muscles that cross the joint and provide compressive forces at the articulation (anconeus-triceps, brachialis)

Both the MCL and the LCL are strong fan-shaped thickenings of the fibrous joint capsule. These ligaments prevent excessive abduction and adduction of the elbow joint. The AL wraps around the radial head and holds it tight against the ulna.

Medial collateral ligament

The humeral origin of the MCL lies posterior to the axis of elbow flexion, creating a cam effect; hence, anterior fibers are stressed in extension, and posterior fibers are stressed in flexion. The MCL has the following three major portions (see the image below):

  • Anterior oblique ligament
  • Posterior oblique ligament
  • Transverse ligament
Schematic diagram of medial collateral ligament of Schematic diagram of medial collateral ligament of elbow shows 3 bundles. Anterior bundle is major stabilizer of elbow to valgus stress.

The anterior oblique ligament is the primary stabilizer of the elbow for functional range of motion (ROM) from 20º to 120º. It arises from the anteroinferior surface of the medial epicondyle and inserts at the sublimis tubercle, adjacent to the joint surface. The anterior bundle inserts at an average distance of 18.4 mm dorsal to the coronoid tip; thus, the attachment would be disrupted only in Regan and Morrey type III fractures of the coronoid. [25]

The anterior oblique bundle has two subportions, anterior and posterior. The anterior band is the primary restraint to valgus rotation at 30º, 60º, and 90º of flexion and is a coprimary restraint at 120º; it is more likely to be injured with the elbow in extension. The posterior band is the coprimary restraint at 120º; it is more likely to be injured in flexion (though injury to this band usually occurs along with injury to the anterior band).

The posterior oblique ligament is a weak fan-shaped thickening of the joint capsule, which arises at the posterior aspect of the medial epicondyle and inserts over the olecranon; it forms the floor of the cubital tunnel and functions as a secondary stabilizer only at 30º of flexion.

The transverse ligament is a constant anatomic structure that is intra-articularly visible within the lower part of the medial joint capsule; it strengthens the articular joint capsule and contributes to elbow stability.

The MCL is the primary medial stabilizer of the flexed elbow joint. In full extension, it provides about 30% of stability, versus about 54-70% in 90º flexion. The radial head is an important secondary stabilizer in extension, as well as in flexion. After excision of the radial head alone, there is a 30-33% loss in valgus stability of the elbow, which does not significantly improve even after replacement with a silicone rubber radial head.

Resection of the anterior band of the MCL will result in gross instability, except in full elbow extension. Resection of both the MCL and the radial head results in gross instability of the elbow and may produce subluxation or dislocation of the elbow. The anterior bundle of the MCL is tested with the elbow in 90º of flexion.

Lateral collateral ligament and anular ligament

Anatomically, the LCL consists of a ligamentous expansion proceeding down from the lateral epicondyle to the ulna (a major expansion, which inserts into supinator crest of the ulna) and also sends expansions down to the AL and the radius.

The LCL has a greater role with increased flexion of the elbow. LUCL deficiency leads to posterolateral rotatory instability. Additional deficiency of the RCL results in dislocation of the elbow.

The ECU (extensor carpi ulnaris) tendon and the supinator tendon merge with the LCL and resist posterolateral instability.



UCL injuries can manifest as acute ligament tears following a single valgus stress or as overuse sprains following repetitive valgus overloads. Repetitive medial stress can also cause attenuation and microstretching of the UCL complex, causing instability over time.

Maximal MCL stress occurs when the elbow remains flexed between 60º and 75º and the wrist begins to cock in preparation for the throw in the late cocking phase of throwing, as well as in the acceleration phase, when maximal humeral external rotation occurs.

The common pathway of posterolateral instability includes the following:

  • Extension overload - Medial UCL insufficiency alters contact area and pressure between the posteromedial trochlea and olecranon and helps explain the development of posteromedial osteophytes
  • Triceps muscle strain
  • Avulsion fracture tip of olecranon
  • Olecranon hypertrophy
  • Loose bodies in the olecranon fossa
  • Tears of brachialis and anterior capsule
  • Fixed flexion contracture
  • Posterolateral instability

Recurrent microtrauma of the skeletally immature elbow joint in children can lead to Little Leaguer's elbow, a syndrome that encompasses the following:

  • Delayed or accelerated growth of the medial epicondyle (medial epicondylar apophysitis)
  • Traction apophysitis (medial epicondylar fragmentation)
  • Medial epicondylitis

With posterior dislocation of the elbow joint, dislocation begins on the lateral side of the elbow and progresses to the medial side in three stages, as follows:

  • Stage 1 - Partial or complete disruption of the LCL (mainly its ulnar part); this results in posterolateral rotatory subluxation, which can reduce spontaneously
  • Stage 2 - Incomplete posterolateral dislocation, in which the concave medial edge of the ulna rests on the trochlea
  • Stage 3a - Disruption of all of the soft tissues around, and including, the posterior part of the MCL, leaving the important anterior band, which provides stability if the forearm is kept in pronation, to prevent posterolateral rotatory subluxation
  • Stage 3b - Disruption of the entire MCL, which makes the elbow unstable after reduction
  • Stage 3c - Stripping of soft tissue from the entire distal aspect of the humerus, which makes the elbow unstable, even in 90º flexion


The two most common causes of elbow instability are sports (commonly chronic) and trauma (acute onset, as with ligamentous injuries in elbow dislocation).

During the throwing motion, high loads of valgus stress on the elbow joint results in tension on the medial structures (ie, medial epicondyle, medial epicondylar apophysis, and MCL complex) and compression of the lateral structures (ie, radial head and capitellum). Repeated MCL stress due to medial tension overload may result in MCL strain or rupture. This chronic injury may lead to development of ulnar traction spurs, deposition of calcium, and medial ligament instability.

Injuries associated with specific sports include the following:

  • Golf - Medial epicondylitis of the trailing arm and lateral epicondylitis of the leading arm
  • Racquet sports - Lateral epicondylitis with backhand
  • Bowling - Medial epicondylitis
  • Baseball and volleyball - Valgus stress of medial structures and compression of lateral structures
  • Weight training - UCL strain and ulnar neuritis
  • Canoeing and kayaking - Distal bicipital tendinitis
  • Archery - Lateral epicondylitis of the bow arm
  • Rock climbing - Distal bicipital and brachialis tendinitis
  • Football - Valgus stress with throwing a pass


In a study of 72 professional baseball players who underwent arthroscopic or open elbow surgery, the most common causes of elbow symptoms were posteromedial olecranon osteophyte (65%), UCL injury (25%), and ulnar neuritis (15%). In the United States, the estimated incidence of all baseball-related overuse injuries is 2-8% per year (20-50% of these injuries occur in adolescents and school-age children).

The true worldwide incidence of sports-related injuries is not known, because a large number of athletes never seek medical care and because the statistical data are unavailable from a number of countries. [3]



In one study, the patients with posteromedial olecranon osteophytes had the highest rate of reoperation due to persisting symptoms, and patients who underwent only UCL reconstruction had a higher rate of return to play. [6] At an average of 3.3 years after UCL reconstruction with use of the docking technique, 92% of patients had an excellent result and had returned to, or exceeded, their previous level of play. The docking technique may offer better results than Jobe's original procedure while minimizing the associated risks.

Watson et al conducted a systematic review comparing clinical outcomes of the Jobe, modified Jobe, docking, modified docking, Endobutton, and interference screw techniques for UCL reconstruction in elite overhead athletes. [26]  The review included 21 studies that reported on 1368 patients. The investigators concluded that UCL reconstruction utilizing the docking technique results in a significantly higher rate of return to play and a lower complication rate in comparison with the Jobe and modified Jobe techniques.

Erickson et al, in a study aimed at determining whether clinical outcomes and rates of return to sport after UCL reconstruction differed according to graft choice, surgical technique, or other variables, found that both docking and double-docking reconstruction yielded excellent clinical outcomes, with no significant differences between the techniques. [27] Graft type also did not significantly affect outcome scores. The incidence of complications was lower with the double-docking technique than with the docking technique.