Ex-fullback tests arm slings

Dr. Eric McCarty studies healing of shoulder dislocations

Two years ago, former Boulder High School and University of Colorado football standout Eric McCarty put me in a sling.

He did not run me over, which the former fullback and linebacker could quite casually do. Dr. Eric McCarty is an orthopedic surgeon these days and had repaired my torn shoulder ligament, called a labrum.

An anterior, or forward, shoulder dislocation - karmic payback for a daft move on the slopes - had left my left labrum in disarray. The labrum is fibrous cartilage that deepens the socket in which the upper arm 's ball joint, or humerus, rests. With my labrum not fully minding the shop, my upper arm had been taking brief, painful vacations.

Eric McCarty in his sling
Dr. Eric McCarty demonstrates a sling that holds the arm away from the body. McCarty is leading a three-year national study to determine whether patients wearing such a sling after their first shoulder dislocation heal better than with traditional cross-body slings. Paul Aiken/Daily Camera

On Friday, I put McCarty in a sling . He is leading a new national study on a different type of sling that may once have kept me - and may one day keep many others - out of the operating room. He's looking for volunteers, although you have to be under 30 and have just suffered your first shoulder dislocation to qualify.

McCarty, 40, played for CU in the late 1980s and is now the head team physician for the university's athletic department and the sideline doctor at Buff football games. He also is an associate professor at the CU School of Medicine and chief of sports medicine and shoulder surgery in the Department of Orthopaedics.

His three-year clinical study is supported by a $140,000 grant from the Orthopedic Research and Education Foundation. CU and nine other universities and institutions are participating.

The study is centered around a fancy sling - the DonJoy UltraSling ER - that immobilizes the shoulder not across the abdomen, but rather externally rotated in a position a shy hitchhiker might maintain.

A Japanese study made public in 2003 found that dislocation-sufferers who were immobilized in a sling maintaining external rotation did not suffer repeat dislocations over the next 16 months. This was despite not having reconstructive surgery.

In contrast, 30 percent of patients placed in traditional abdomen-hugging slings had new dislocations in that period, the study reported.

McCarty says he is intrigued by the study, but unimpressed with its small sample size, broad age range and inclusion of patients who had suffered multiple dislocations. He wants to do a randomized study with about 150 participants nationwide, half with the UltraSling, half with the old standby.

He wants them to be young because young people tend to dislocate again. He wants them to be first-time dislocations because the labra will have the best shot at healing.

"We're trying to offer this as an opportunity to reduce the need for surgery, but we've got to figure out if it works," McCarty said.

The reason a sling that maintains external rotation could work is that it forces the labrum closer to its natural home on the glenoid, or bony part of the shoulder socket. Abdominal slings such as the one I wore tend to push the labrum out of position into the shoulder's void.

In my case, successful surgery had secured it. But there was missed work and weeks in a sling , interrupted only by physical therapy designed, at first, to loosen the shoulder. Scar tissue and surgical tightening had torqued it well beyond its pre-injury state. The limb did not want to be loosened, and shared its feelings via screaming pain. It was four months before I was finished with physical therapy.

Patrick Naylor, a physical therapist and coordinator of sports physical therapy at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, said that assuming the labrum was in decent shape, the rehabilitation process would be much faster if surgery could be avoided.

Study participants will be scheduled for three weeks in the sling followed by three weeks of formal rehabilitation, McCarty said, followed by a home-rehab program.