Tommy John Surgery

Tommy John surgery, also known as ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction, has revolutionized how athletes, particularly those in throwing sports, approach and recover from elbow injuries. By understanding the intricacies of this remarkable surgery, we can gain valuable insights into the human body’s resilience and the advancements in modern healthcare.

Understanding the Ulnar Collateral Ligament

The UCL is a crucial stabilizing structure located on the inner side of the elbow joint. This ligament connects the upper arm bone (humerus) to the lower arm bone (ulna) and helps maintain the elbow’s stability and range of motion during overhead throwing motions. When this ligament becomes stretched, partially torn, or completely ruptured, it can lead to significant pain, instability, and a diminished ability to perform athletic activities involving the elbow.

ulnar collateral ligament

Symptoms Indicating UCL Injury

Athletes experiencing UCL injuries often report various symptoms, which can vary in intensity and impact their performance and daily activities. These symptoms include:

  • Pain on the Inner Side of the Elbow: This is the most common symptom and is usually felt during or after throwing activities. The pain may be sharp or aching and is often aggravated by repeated stress on the elbow.
  • A Feeling of Looseness or Instability in the Elbow: Athletes may feel that their elbow is unstable or loose, particularly during the acceleration phase of throwing. This instability can affect their confidence and ability to perform.
  • Decreased Throwing Velocity or Performance: A significant symptom for athletes is a noticeable decline in their throwing speed and overall performance. This reduction in capability can be due to pain, instability, or both.
  • A “Pop” Sensation Followed by Intense Pain: In some cases, athletes may hear or feel a “pop” in their elbow at the moment of injury. This sensation is often followed by immediate and severe pain, indicating a potential tear or rupture of the UCL.

Diagnosis and Pre-Surgical Evaluation

Diagnosing a UCL injury involves a comprehensive evaluation process to accurately assess the extent of the injury and determine the most appropriate treatment plan. The steps involved in this evaluation include:

  • Physical Examination: The initial evaluation by a healthcare provider typically involves a detailed medical history and a physical examination. The doctor will palpate the elbow to locate areas of tenderness and may perform specific maneuvers to assess pain and stability. This includes the valgus stress test, where the elbow is stressed to determine the integrity of the UCL.
  • Imaging Tests: Imaging tests are crucial to confirm the diagnosis and evaluate the injury’s severity. MRIs, Ultrasounds, or X-rays may be used.
  • Stress Tests to Assess Elbow Stability: These tests are designed to evaluate the stability and functionality of the elbow joint. One common test is the valgus stress test, where pressure is applied to the elbow to see if it gaps or shows signs of instability. Another test is the moving valgus stress test, where the elbow is moved through a range of motion while applying stress to determine at what point pain occurs.

By combining these diagnostic tools, Dr. Peter Howard can accurately diagnose UCL injuries and recommend the most effective treatment plan, whether it involves conservative management or surgical intervention.

Introducing Tommy John Surgery

The first Tommy John surgery was in 1974 when Dr. Frank Jobe, a pioneering orthopedic surgeon, performed the first-ever UCL reconstruction procedure on Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tommy John. At the time, Jobe gave the procedure a mere one-in-a-hundred chance of success, yet his innovative approach would transform the landscape of sports medicine.

This procedure is primarily recommended for athletes who have experienced a complete UCL tear, often due to the repetitive stress and strain of overhead throwing motions. These injuries are most commonly seen in baseball pitchers but can also affect athletes in other sports, including javelin throwers, tennis players, softball players, and even football players and wrestlers.

Tommy John surgery involves reconstructing the damaged UCL with a tendon graft, typically taken from the patient’s forearm, hamstring, or big toe. This graft is then meticulously threaded through precisely drilled holes in the humerus and ulna bones, creating a new, stabilizing ligament. Dr. Peter Howard uses advanced surgical techniques, such as the docking technique and the figure-eight graft pattern, to ensure precise reconstruction and optimal outcomes.

tommy john surgery baseball

Success Rates and Long-Term Outcomes

Tommy John surgery boasts a high success rate, with approximately 85-90% of athletes returning to their previous level of performance. Continuous advancements in surgical techniques and rehabilitation protocols contribute to improved outcomes and faster recovery times.

Rehabilitation and Recovery

The rehabilitation process following surgery is a crucial component of the patient’s journey to recovery. Immediately after the procedure, the elbow is immobilized in a splint or brace to protect the healing graft. Within the first few weeks, the patient begins gentle range-of-motion exercises, focusing on the wrist, hand, and shoulder to prevent muscle atrophy.

As the healing progresses, the physical therapy regimen gradually becomes more intensive, incorporating strengthening exercises and a supervised throwing program for athletes. The typical recovery timeline for a throwing athlete, such as a baseball pitcher, is between 12 to 18 months, with the majority of patients able to return to their pre-injury level of competition.

The Ulnar Nerve and Potential Complications

While Tommy John surgery is generally a safe and effective procedure, patients should be aware of some potential complications. One of the most common issues is irritation or damage to the ulnar nerve, which runs along the inner side of the elbow and can be affected by surgical intervention. To mitigate this risk, surgeons may relocate the ulnar nerve to a position in front of the elbow joint, providing additional protection and reducing the likelihood of nerve-related complications.

Other potential complications, though rare, include infection at the surgical site, graft stretching or rupture, and issues related to the graft harvesting site. Diligent post-operative care and adherence to the prescribed rehabilitation program are crucial in minimizing these risks and ensuring a successful recovery.

Contact Dr. Peter Howard for Expert Care

Tommy John surgery has undoubtedly revolutionized the world of sports medicine, offering a second chance to athletes whose careers once hung in the balance due to elbow instability.

If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of a UCL injury, seeking expert medical advice and treatment is crucial. Dr. Peter Howard specializes in Tommy John surgery and provides comprehensive care, including thorough evaluations, personalized treatment plans, and expert rehabilitation. With a commitment to helping you return to your active lifestyle, Dr. Howard employs the latest techniques to ensure optimal outcomes. Reach out to Peter Howard, M.D., today to schedule a consultation and explore the most advanced options available in orthopedic care.