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OSU football: Will Spencer Sanders' thumb surgery have lasting effects this season?

Oklahoma State's Spencer Sanders had surgery on his right thumb in November, but is feeling no ill effects as the start of preseason practice nears. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]
Oklahoma State's Spencer Sanders had surgery on his right thumb in November, but is feeling no ill effects as the start of preseason practice nears. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]

STILLWATER — A few days after he tore a ligament in his thumb in a game against Kansas last November, Oklahoma State's Spencer Sanders joined an elite quarterback club.

Not the kind of club one wants to join, but rare one nonetheless. The name of the club isn’t all that catchy, either: Quarterbacks who had the same surgery as Drew Brees.

Sanders tore the ulnar collateral ligament in the thumb of his throwing hand, rendering him unable to grip a football, much less throw one with the usual zip he had shown through the first two-thirds of his freshman season.

The UCL tear of the thumb isn’t uncommon in sports, but the type of surgery Sanders received to repair it is still somewhat new in the medical world, meaning it has been around for only a few years. Two months before Sanders suffered his injury, Brees — the quarterback of the New Orleans Saints — became the most notable quarterback to have the specific surgery Sanders had.

As OSU nears the start of preseason camp, Sanders’ thumb will continue to be tested. And a thumb injury for a quarterback can be detrimental to nearly everything he does. Yet Sanders reported no issues at the start of spring ball in March, which lasted only three practices before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the sports world.

“My thumb’s great,” Sanders said at the time. “I’m throwing great. The spiral’s coming off nice. Velocity looked good.

“It doesn’t bother me at all.”

A torn thumb UCL — the ligament connecting the bones on the inside of the largest thumb joint — is more generally known as skier’s thumb, because the injury is so common in that sport.

“You can imagine if you’re skiing down a mountain and your ski pole gets planted and your thumb gets violently bent away from the hand, that’s how this ligament gets torn,” said Dr. Clay Nelson, a surgeon with Oklahoma Sports and Orthopedics Institute, who did not treat Sanders, but specializes in hand and upper extremity injuries.

“It can happen in any ball sport or to any athlete where the thumb gets bent into an extreme position away from the hand, because the job of that ligament is to connect that joint and keep it stable. But when it gets pulled too far, it gets injured.”

Sanders’ injury itself wasn’t rare. Sports medicine professionals have been treating the injury, with and without surgery, for years on a wide variety of athletes, quarterbacks included. But a recently developed method for helping athletes return to action faster gained attention when Brees had the surgery and was back on the field after five weeks.

Some notable athletes, including outfielder Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels and Thunder point guard Chris Paul, have had the same procedure.

“The thumb acts as a post,” Nelson said. “With this injury, athletes who have to grip a ball, they have weakness, pain, the thumb does not have the stability they need to grip things.”

The injury occurs often in football, because the thumb is unprotected against being bent away from the hand in such a high-contact sport.

For players handling the ball, surgery often is needed immediately, while a lineman might be able to have the hand casted and delay surgery until after the season. And not all UCL injuries require surgery.

But in the cases that do, two methods are used for repairing the UCL. Both include drilling a hole in the bone to reattach the ligament.

Where Brees’ surgery was different was the use of an internal brace to protect the ligament, which helped him return to the field in about half the time.

“The internal brace, which uses a high-strength, braided suture material, doesn’t allow the ligament to heal any faster,” Nelson said. “It allows for a shorter rehab, because it stabilizes and protects the ligament while the ligament heals. The ligament takes 10-12 weeks to fully heal, but some of these athletes are getting back to play as soon as 5-6 weeks.”

Sanders tore his UCL on Nov. 16, but was still unable to play in OSU’s bowl game six weeks later. He could throw, but didn’t have the control or velocity he needed, admitting he likely pushed himself too hard in rehabilitating the injury.

“Oh, 100%,” he said. “I wanted to play in the bowl game. I gave it all I had.”

Now, nearly nine months after the injury, Sanders has no side effects, other than a little soreness after workouts. He says he doesn’t feel anything different when he’s gripping or throwing the football. And the long-term outlook after the surgery is highly promising.

“What anybody who treats athletes with these injuries tells them, in general, is that the results are excellent,” Nelson said. “We expect them to be able to return to play at the level they were before.”

Scott Wright

A lifelong resident of the Oklahoma City metro area, Scott Wright has been on The Oklahoman staff since 2005, covering a little bit of everything on the state's sports scene. He has been a beat writer for football and basketball at Oklahoma and... Read more ›