What Is Tommy John Surgery?
Apr 16, 2018 Cedars-Sinai Staff
If you're a baseball fan, you've probably heard of Tommy John surgery. Your favorite pitcher might have missed an entire season because of the procedure, but what exactly is it and why do so many players have it?
What is Tommy John surgery?
The procedure, named for the LA Dodgers pitcher who first had the surgery, was originally performed by Dr. Frank Jobe, co-founder of Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic, now called Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute.
During the surgery—also called ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction—an injured elbow ligament is replaced with a tendon from somewhere else in the patient's body, usually from the forearm or hamstring.
"It can occur with any athlete who places high, sudden torque on their elbow."
Since the first operation in 1974, the technique has become increasingly common among baseball players, especially pitchers. Tommy John surgery is also seen in tennis, gymnastics, javelin throw, and football.
We sat down with Dr. Neal ElAttrache—co-chair of Medical Affairs at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute, Chief of Sports Medicine at Cedars-Sinai, and head team physician for the Dodgers—to learn more about this career-saving operation.
"Surgery becomes necessary when we can't help the pain with nonsurgical treatments like rest, ice, and physical therapy."
Q: Why do people get Tommy John surgery?
Dr. ElAttrache: People who get this surgery are usually athletes who have injured their elbow from repetitive, strenuous motion. It can occur with any athlete who places high, sudden torque on their elbow. It can be painful because stress from years of the same motion damages the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow of the affected arm.
Q: At what point does surgery become necessary to repair an elbow injury?
Dr. ElAttrache: Surgery becomes necessary when we can't help the pain with nonsurgical treatments like rest, ice, and physical therapy. We're seeing an increased number of patients needing this surgery due to more sports specialization and year-round play from a younger age.
Q: What is the ideal outcome of this surgery?
Dr. ElAttrache: Our goal is to repair and stabilize the arm, so the patient can resume their normal activity without pain. We've made a lot of progress since the surgery was first developed. Success rates have risen over the years thanks to new technology and improved techniques.
Q: How long does it take to recover from this surgery?
Dr. ElAttrache: After the surgery and physical therapy, return to competition takes anywhere from 12-16 months.