What is Tommy John Surgery: How to Know if You Need It
The name, Tommy John surgery isn’t exactly a dead-giveaway for what this procedure entails – unless you know who Tommy John is. Tommy John was a pitcher, who was the first person to have this type of surgery back in 1974.
After his baseball elbow surgery, Tommy won 146 more games in his baseball career, which he retired from in 1989.
But wait: what is TJ surgery?
Tommy John surgery is a procedure performed to repair the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in the elbow. This ligament may become torn from excessive throwing movements and therefore is a common baseball injury.
Usually, the UCL helps to secure and support the elbow joint by attaching the ulnar and humerus bones on the inside of the elbow.
Reconstruction surgery of the UCL involves the use of another tendon from elsewhere in your body or from a donor. This tendon is then attached to repair the torn UCL. In most cases, it takes about a year to make a full recovery after a Tommy John surgery procedure. This is different from other athletic injuries like ACL surgery, shoulder surgery and even lower back injuries and surgery. This is a long recovery period, but it’s necessary.
Surgery and recovery go hand in hand – follow the natural order of healing and listen to your body.
How Do You Know if You Need Tommy John Surgery?
Contrary to popular belief, Tommy John surgery doesn’t necessarily make you a better pitcher. But more and more MLB players are getting the UCL surgery.
Why is this happening? When you pitch a ball in baseball, you essentially push the limits on the maximum movement range and force of these ligaments and tendons. At a certain point, the ligaments or tendons may not be able to take it. Thus, they end up tearing. Many pitchers have gone on to have incredible baseball careers post-UCL surgery. This is also true for players that have knee surgery – even a total knee replacement.
Most individuals who undergo this surgery do so from overuse injuries causing the UCL to tear. As previously mentioned, this is common in athletes who frequently bend their elbow – like pitchers.
Usually, baseball elbow surgery is considered a last resort. This ligament surgery is recommended only if other conservative treatment options have failed or if the injury is severe enough that it is determined that it won’t heal properly on its own.
What are the Symptoms and Rehabilitation Procedures After Tommy John Surgery?
Typically, recovery after a procedure like this follows three phases. Immediately post-surgery, the elbow is placed in a brace securing it in a 60 or 90-degree angle. Physical therapy exercises may start right away. But instead of beginning with elbow movement, they often focus on increasing strength in the hands, wrist, fingers, shoulder, and biceps first.
A couple of weeks following UCL surgery, you can move your elbow. You may switch to wearing a hinged brace or keeping it in a sling when not performing your exercises.
Your physical therapist will begin to prescribe various range of motion exercises to work on getting elbow function back. Slowly regaining motion and mobility in the arm is similar to what hip replacement surgery patients experience. Taking things slowly and not overdoing it are important. Stretching yourself to your limits only has the potential to do harm if you do it improperly.
After the first month or so, full extension of the elbow is possible. This is a good guideline for all surgical recovery times from the back to the neck and everything in between. There’s no “exact” amount of time for healing, but if you have questions, ask your doctor or therapist.
Around this time, it is recommended to take off any braces or slings. Many patients regain a normal range of motion and have very few residual Tommy John surgery symptoms within a few months. However, it may vary case-to-case. Strength may take more time to regain, with many athletes returning to fully normal functioning within a year. During the recovery time, athletes need to focus on whole-body health, not just the arm.
Tommy John Ligament Surgery Has Become a Staple in UCL Tears
If you’ve experienced a recent UCL tear, TJ surgery may be recommended to you in order to gain proper healing and make a full recovery. While recovering from Tommy John surgery, be sure to take care of the rest of your body. You may not be able to lift weights or throw right away, but you can do activities like breathing exercises (cardiopulmonary physical therapy), stretching, riding a bicycle, or even running on the treadmill or outside. Keeping busy helps even the most dedicated athletes distract themselves from the downtime away from the sport they love. These outpatient orthopedic exercises differ depending on athletic abilities and strength, but they are all useful.
And if you’ve recently had this procedure or have one scheduled, use the BetterPT clinic location tool website or download the mobile app. This helps you find and schedule an appointment with a physical therapist who specializes in treating Tommy John surgery symptoms near you. For athletes or those with busy schedules, scheduling telehealth appointments is a lifesaver. Using the BetterTelehealth platform, patients meet with their therapists from their homes or workplaces – no transportation needed!
Even if you think you can do it on your own, it’s best to incorporate physical therapy into your post surgery recovery after elbow surgery. Find the help you need faster than ever before, and start your road toward recovery from Tommy John surgery today.