The first-round series between the 76ers and Raptors took a turn when MVP finalist Joel Embiid suffered a right thumb injury in a Game 3 win.
After getting out to a 3-0 series lead, the Sixers have lost two consecutive games. Embiid has been clearly affected by the injury, which has limited his dominance on the offensive end.
MORE: How Raptors have found new life against Sixers
Imaging of Embiid’s thumb revealed a torn ligament, adding to the superstar’s run of tough injury luck in the postseason. The severity of the injury brings about more questions surrounding his impact for the remainder of and beyond, should Philadelphia advance.
To better understand the extent of Embiid’s injury, The Sporting News reached out to our medical expert, Dr. Michael S. George of the KSF Orthopaedic Center in Houston, Texas.
Joel Embiid injury explained: Expert medical analysis
What is Joel Embiid’s injury?
“Embiid suffered a ligament tear in his right thumb during Game 3 of the first round of the NBA playoffs against the Toronto Raptors.
“He is reportedly planning on playing through the injury for the remainder of the playoffs, then having surgery after the season. This injury is presumably a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament, or UCL, which is the most commonly torn thumb ligament in athletes.”
What does a UCL do and how does it tear?
“The UCL provides stability to the base joint of the thumb by resisting stresses that push the thumb in an outward direction away from the hand. This ligament is commonly injured from a fall on the outstretched hand.
“An acute UCL tear is often called a Skier’s thumb, whereas a chronic tear is known as Gamekeeper’s thumb.”
Why will Joel Embiid’s injury require surgery?
“Partial tears can be treated non operatively but a complete tear with displacement of the ligament requires surgical repair of the ligament back down to the bone. Thumb UCL tears cause joint pain and instability and weakness with pinch grip. Rebounding and catching passes can be particularly painful since they require a tight grip on the ball.
“While a result of surgical repair can be very good in both the acute or chronic settings, ideally, surgery would be performed in the first three to six weeks to avoid ligament scarring that can make surgery more difficult and recovery less predictable.
“Even if the 76ers make it to the NBA Finals, this would result in a delay of at most seven weeks from the time of injury until surgery.”
How common is a torn UCL in athletes?
“There are numerous examples of NBA players who’ve returned to pre-injury form after thumb UCL repairs including Chris Paul in 2017, Marcus Smart and 2018 and Bam Adebayo this season.”
(Note: Adebayo was sidelined from Dec. 1 to Jan. 15 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn UCL)
“In a study by Jack and colleagues in the orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine in 2018 that looked at 21 Major League Baseball players who underwent thumb UCL repair in-season, all 21 players returned to full activity at a mean of eight weeks after surgery with no change in games played preseason or career lengths compared to other players.
“A similar study by Werner and colleagues in the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2017 looked at 36 NFL players with UCL repair. All players returned to full activity the following season.”
How will this injury impact Joel Embiid moving forward?
“While the long-term outlook is very promising for Embiid, it will likely be an ongoing issue that he will have difficulty with for the rest of the playoffs. He will probably need to continue taping the thumb and will likely have to deal with discomfort with gripping the ball.
“That being said, he has historically been a very tough player and may be able to still play at a very high level despite the discomfort”