Tommy John surgery is a very common surgery that many orthopedic surgeons perform. Formally, Tommy John surgery is called ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction. It is a surgery used to repair a torn ligament inside the elbow. While the surgery is relatively common, athletes who undergo surgery will take time to recover to their normal type of play. While most parts of the body are able to heal on their own over time, a damaged ulnar collateral ligament does not heal on its own. As a result, surgery is always required in these situations.
Ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction is called Tommy John surgery because the famous Major League Baseball player, pitcher Tommy John, underwent the surgery himself, which allowed him to come back to the game of baseball instead of allowing his injury to be a career-ender. The ulnar collateral ligament is located on the inside of the elbow and helps to secure the elbow joint. Tearing this ligament is particularly common in people who overuse the joint, which tends to be athletes such as pitchers and quarterbacks. Once this tissue is damaged, the elbow becomes unstable, and it can be a career-ending injury for many athletes.
In order to complete a Tommy John surgery, a tendon is harvested from the patient’s own body or a donor and is used to replace the damaged tissue in the elbow. The surgery, if successful, is able to reduce or eliminate pain, restore stability and range of motion, and allows people to go back to their everyday lives. Tommy John surgery is typically an outpatient procedure. It lasts about an hour to an hour and a half and is done under general anesthesia. If taken from the patient themselves, the tendon used to repair the tissue is taken from the forearm, the hamstring, or the big toe. The joint is thoroughly cleaned out, and the graft is put into the patient.
As is true with any surgery, there are certain risks that exist in Tommy John surgery. There can be a risk of infection or anesthesia problems. Or, various blood vessels or nerves may be damaged, leading to permanent weakness or numbness. Patients can expect to be in a brace for two to three months. Then patients will undergo physical therapy for a period of time until they have regained strength and range of motion. Most patients hit a full range of motion two to four months after surgery. However, athletes may not get their competitive range of motion and strength back until a year after surgery.
Tommy John surgery is a relatively routine surgery that can help athletes, as long as other people who are having elbow pain. While surgery does come with potential risks and side effects and should be used as a last resort after conservative treatments have failed, if you do require Tommy John surgery, rest assured that going to a credible orthopedic surgeon will leave you in good hands. A tear in the ulnar collateral ligament is not something that will heal on its own. So, do not hesitate to contact your orthopedic surgeon and find out whether or not Tommy John surgery is right for you.