What Is Tommy John Surgery and Why Might You Need It?

As with many sports injuries, most arise from overuse of a particular joint or part of the body. To a lesser degree, an injury can occur after a one time accident or unexpected extension.

Tommy John surgery is a familiar term if you follow sports, especially Major League Baseball, and this type of surgery has become more prevalent in the last several decades. This condition is not exclusive to baseball players, and so some of you may still be wondering just what is Tommy John surgery and why might you need it?

Who Is Tommy John?

Tommy John played baseball for the LA Dodgers in the 60s and 70s and was an All-Star pitcher. During a game, he felt an unusual twinge and could not continue. Upon examination he was diagnosed with “overuse syndrome,” which at that time indicated a very precarious future for a major league player.

baseball game

When conservative treatments to regain strength and reduce the pain in his arm did not produce results, surgery was recommended. At that time, surgery was thought to be the “beginning of the end” for most pitchers. Other players can continue to play with a sore arm, but certainly not a pitcher.

On Surgery Day

Frank Jobe, MD was the surgeon for the Dodgers and he anticipated repairing the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) on the inside of Tommy John’s elbow. To his surprise he discovered the entire ligament was gone due to the wear and tear of pitching over the years.

At that point, the surgeon improvised and took a ligament from the right wrist and proceeded to graft it for the reconstruction of the UCL. This type of procedure had been done before for wrists and hands, but it had never been tried with an elbow.

As they say, the rest is history. Tommy John regained his strength and continued to successfully pitch until he was 46 years old. Today, Tommy John surgery is known as ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery.

How the Procedure Is Used Today

Tommy John surgery has been performed hundreds of times since 1974. It helps high school, college, minor and major league baseball players to regain their strength and secure their elbow joint. The procedure also helps to reduce or eliminate pain and restore range of motion by connecting the newly grafted tendon at the elbow.

Not only can surgeons today use a tendon from the patient’s body, but donors are now accepted, and in addition to the wrist tendon, doctors can harvest a tendon from the forearm, a hamstring tendon, or the big toe extensor tendon.

Most of these minimally invasive surgeries today are performed on an outpatient basis, meaning that patients do not need to be hospitalized overnight after their procedure. The process is very quick and requires that the patient be under general anesthesia for approximately 60 – 90 minutes.

Who Is a Good Candidate for Tommy John Surgery?

When all conservative treatments have proved unsuccessful, surgery may be recommended as the next step.

When you perform sports activities or job-related tasks that cause your ligament to fray, tear, or slowly become loose, Tommy John surgery may be the answer. Occasionally, a fall on an outstretched hand can also necessitate the surgery, especially if the accidental fall results in severe injury.

Additionally, those who engage in the following sports may be ideal candidates:

  • Golfers
  • Tennis players
  • Athletes who compete at throwing javelins

Recovery can take from 9 months to a year for a professional athlete.

Athletes who specialize in one particular position, like pitchers, are most susceptible to tearing their collateral ligament. Famous and successful major league pitchers like John Smoltz and Stephen Strasburg owe their careers to this surgery.

If you are having pain emanating from your elbow that leads to limitations or other problems with your arm’s range of motion, contact Hand Surgery Specialists of Texas for an evaluation.

As always, if you have any further questions or would like to schedule an appointment, please call (713) 230-8055 today!

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The Hand Surgery Specialists of Texas offers diagnosis and treatment for hand, wrist, and elbow problems in Houston, using the most advanced and minimally invasive medical techniques. Our orthopedic hand specialists and hand and finger surgeons are waiting to provide you with excellent care at one of our hand care centers in River Oaks, Clear Lake, North Houston, Katy/Sugarland, or Baytown