Original Research

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

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The trends in surgical interventions are notable within the smaller subset of patients who are indicated for operative repair. Use of hardware and primary ligament repair, while popular in the surveys conducted in the 1970s10 and 1990s13 and even present in Nissen and Chatterjee’s20 2007 survey, were noticeably absent from our survey results, with the majority of respondents preferring open coracoclavicular ligament reconstruction. The role of distal clavicle excision has also expanded, from 23% of team physicians recommending it in 199713 to 57% to 59% in Nissen and Chatterjee’s20 2007 survey, to 66.7% in our series. This trend is not surprising as several recent cadaveric biomechanical studies have demonstrated that not only do peak graft forces not increase significantly,21 the anterior-posterior and superior-inferior motion at the AC joint following ligament reconstruction is maintained despite resection of the lateral clavicle.22 Additionally, primary distal clavicle excision may prevent the development of post-traumatic arthritis at the AC joint and osteolysis of the distal clavicle as a possible pain generator in the future.23 However, some respondents cautioned against performing a concomitant distal clavicle excision, as some biomechanical data demonstrate that resecting the distal clavicle may lead to increased horizontal translation at the AC joint despite intact superior and posterior AC capsules.24 Professional baseball pitchers may also be more lax and thus prone to more instability. Primary repair or reconstruction may not always lead to complete pre-injury stability in these individuals. This subtle unrecognized instability is hard to diagnosis and may be a persistent source of pain; thus, adding a distal clavicle excision may actually exacerbate the instability.

The nuanced indications for operative intervention, such as the presence of associated lesions were not captured by our survey.25 While most team physicians cited functional limitations as their most common reason for offering surgery, several MLB orthopedic surgeons also commented on evaluating the stability of the AC joint after a grade III injury, akin to the consensus statement from the International Society of Arthroscopy, Knee Surgery and Orthopaedic Sports Medicine (ISAKOS) Upper Extremity Committee26 in 2014 that diversified the Rockwood Grade III AC joint separation into its IIIA and IIIB classifications. The ISAKOS recommendations include initial conservative management and a second evaluation (both clinical and radiographic) for grade III lesions 3 to 6 weeks after the injury. However, as professional baseball is an incredibly profitable sport with an annual revenue approaching $9.5 billion27 and pitching salaries up to $32.5 million in 2015, serious financial considerations must be given to players who wish to avoid undergoing delayed surgery.

This study has shortcomings typical of expert opinion papers. The retrospective nature of this study places the data at risk of recall bias. Objective data (eg, terminal ROM, pain relief, and return to play) were obtained from a retrospective chart review; however, no standard documentation or collection method was used given the number of surgeons involved and, thus, conclusions based on treatment outcomes are imperfect. Another major weakness of this survey is the relatively small number of patients and respondents. An a priori power analysis was not available, as this was a retrospective review. A comparative trial will be necessary to definitively support one treatment over another. Assuming a 95% return to play in the nonoperatively treated group, approximately 300 patients would be needed in a prospective 2-armed study with 80% power to detect a 10% reduction in the incidence of return to play using an alpha level of 0.05 and assuming no loss to follow-up. This sample size would be difficult to achieve in this patient population.

However, compared to past series,13 the number of professional baseball players treated by the collective experience of these MLB team physicians is the largest reported to date. As suggested above, the rarity of this condition in elite athletes precludes the ability to have matched controls to definitively determine the optimal treatment, which may explain the lack of difference in the return to play, ROM, and pain relief outcomes. Instead, we can only extrapolate based on the collective anecdotal experience of the MLB team physicians.


Despite advances in surgical technique and understanding of throwing mechanics, the majority of MLB team physicians preferred nonoperative management for an acute grade III AC joint separation in a professional baseball pitcher. Open coracoclavicular ligament reconstruction was preferred for those who preferred operative intervention. An increasing number of orthopedic surgeons now consider a distal clavicle excision as an adjunct procedure.

This paper will be judged for the Resident Writer’s Award.

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