When people think of major league baseball pitcher Tommy John, two things might pop into their minds. The first has to do with his baseball career, which was certainly an exemplary and enduring career that included a record (at the time) for a pitcher of 26 seasons in big league baseball. The second thing people associate with Tommy John is the surgery that bears his name.
John’s career included participation in three dramatic Worlds Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees. Twice he was voted as a baseball All-Star. But one statistic from his career has been the focus of speculation for many years, which is John’s pre-operation success on the pitcher’s mound and his post-operation success.
Before And After Surgery
Prior to surgery, which took place in 1974, John had notched 124 victories as a major league pitcher. After taking a year off to recuperate, John returned in 1976 and from then on amassed 164 more wins. As such, the operation not only worked, but it gave rise to speculation that John threw the ball harder after the surgery than before.
John’s comeback from surgery was startling in its success and the pitcher’s longevity. And it wasn’t long before parents of healthy young baseball prospects were requesting the operation for their offspring, hoping the elective procedure would turn their child into a major league baseball player.
Any surgical procedure needs to be thoroughly discussed with qualified physicians, and elective surgery is not an exemption to that rule. Certainly, if you could buy a bionic mechanism that could turn your child into a baseball star, people would line up around the block to grab a hold of that slice of the American Dream. Only your physician and yourself can make the call on whether or not to go through with that option. Here, let’s discuss how the procedure works.
Ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery
Recommended if the ulnar collateral ligament is frayed or stretched beyond healing, this reconstruction surgery was first performed on Tommy Johns by Dodgers team physician Frank Jobe. Technically, the procedure is a surgical graft. This entails replacing the damaged ligament with a tendon taken from a donor or from another portion of the patient’s body.
Needless to say, if the tendon is taken from the patient’s body, the physician selects one that will not have a major negative impact when removed. The tendons commonly used are the patellar tendon, which comes from a knee joint, or the palmaris tendon, selected from the opposite forearm.
The procedure involves drilling holes in the ulna and humerus bones of the elbow, then wrapping the donated tendon through the holes in a figure eight fashion. The ends of the tendon are then anchored in place. At times, the procedure also involves moving the ulnar nerve, which is made necessary if the new scar tissue is likely to push on the nerve causing post-operative pain.
Not Just for Pitchers
Pitchers are not the only baseball players prone to ulnar collateral ligament distress. The condition, however, is predominantly a baseball-specific injury. For pitchers, the recovery time is more significant for pitchers than for other players.
Meanwhile, the rise in ulnar collateral ligament procedures on youth – elective or not – has been on the rise, prompting Major League Baseball and Little League Baseball to encourage injury prevention pitching by following a program called Pitch Smart.