Original Research

Treatment of Grade III Acromioclavicular Separations in Professional Baseball Pitchers: A Survey of Major League Baseball Team Physicians

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Despite advancements in surgical technique and improved understanding of the physiology of throwing mechanics, controversy persists regarding the preferred treatment for grade III acromioclavicular (AC) joint separations.1-6 Nonsurgical management has demonstrated return to prior function with fewer complications.7 However, there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that surgical intervention is associated with more favorable outcomes8 and should be considered in patients who place high functional demands on their shoulders.9

The reported results on professional athletes in the literature remain ambivalent. Multiple small case reports/series have reported successful nonoperative treatment of elite athletes.10-12 Not surprisingly, McFarland and colleagues13 reported in 1997 that 69% of major league baseball (MLB) team physicians preferred nonoperative treatment for a theoretical starting pitcher sustaining a grade III AC separation 1 week prior to the start of the season. In contrast, reports of an inability to throw at a pre-injury level are equally commonplace.14,15 Nevertheless, all of these studies were limited to small cohorts, as the incidence of grade III AC separations in elite throwing athletes is relatively uncommon.13,16

In this study, we re-evaluated the study performed by McFarland and colleagues13 in 1997 by surveying all active MLB team orthopedic surgeons. We asked them how they would treat a grade III AC separation in a starting professional baseball pitcher. The physicians were also asked about their personal experience evaluating outcomes in these elite athletes. Given our improved understanding of the anatomy, pathophysiology, and surgical techniques for treating grade III AC separations, we hypothesize that more MLB team physicians would favor operative intervention treatment in professional baseball pitchers, as their vocation places higher demands on their shoulders.


A questionnaire (Appendix A) was distributed to the team physicians of all 30 MLB teams. In addition to surgeon demographics, including age, years in practice, and years of taking care of an MLB team, the initial section of the questionnaire asked orthopedic surgeons how they would treat a theoretical starting pitcher who sustained a grade III AC joint separation of the dominant throwing arm 1 week prior to the start of the season. Physicians who preferred nonoperative treatment were asked whether they would use an injection (and what type), as well as when they would allow the pitcher to start a progressive interval throwing program. Physicians who preferred operative treatment were asked to rank their indications for operating, what procedure they would use (eg, open vs arthroscopic or coracoclavicular ligament repair vs reconstruction), and whether the surgical intervention would include distal clavicle excision. Both groups of physicians were also asked if their preferred treatment would change if the injury were to occur at the end of the season.

The second portion of the questionnaire asked surgeons about their experience treating AC joint separations in both starting pitchers and position players, as well as to describe the long-term outcomes of their preferred treatment, including time to return to full clearance for pitching, whether their patients returned to their prior level of play, and whether these patients had full pain relief. Finally, physicians were asked if any of the nonoperatively treated players ultimately crossed over and required operative intervention.

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