Nearly 40 years ago, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers named Tommy John had his ulnar collateral ligament surgically reconstructed. It was the first surgery of its kind and was aptly named Tommy John surgery. Since then, the procedure has become quite common, with an estimated 25% of major league pitchers reportedly having the surgery. What’s more, the procedure is most often performed for high school athletes in the 15-19 age group.
In Houston and Sugar Land, Texas, J. Michael Bennett, MD, PA, treats elbow injuries and performs Tommy John surgery for men, women, and teens who have injured their ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). Let’s take a closer look at how UCL injuries occur, how the surgery is performed, and what life will be like after Tommy John surgery.
The role of the UCL
Your UCL is in your elbow. It's a sturdy, yet flexible band of tissue that connects the bones between your forearm and upper arm and helps stabilize the bending movements you make with your elbow.
How UCL injuries occur
You can make tiny tears in your UCL from overuse or by traumatizing it in an accident. Most often, though, the injury develops in athletes who throw or make repetitive overhand movements. This includes baseball players, especially pitchers, javelin throwers, tennis players, cheerleaders, quarterbacks, and hockey players. When your hand moves away from your body, it creates valgus stress that can compromise the integrity of the ligament and cause it to tear.
Symptoms of UCL injury
If you’ve torn your UCL, you’ll likely experience some or all of the following symptoms:
- Instability in your elbow
- A popping noise
- Loss of grip
- Tingling in your fingers
Persistent pain is also a telltale sign of a UCL injury. You may particularly notice it when you lift your arm up and overhead.
Treatment for a UCL injury
Depending on the severity of your injury, to restore function and alleviate chronic pain, Dr. Bennett may recommend Tommy John surgery. The outpatient procedure is performed under general anesthesia and takes no more than two hours. During the surgery, Dr. Bennett relocates a tendon from somewhere else in your body, such as your hamstring or big toe extensor, and tunnels it into your upper arm bone and one of your forearm bones.
Life after Tommy John surgery
Your recovery from the surgery can take up to a year. During that time, you’ll be rebuilding your strength with intense physical therapy. In the initial weeks following surgery, your arm is supported by a brace with a hinge that allows you to slowly regain your range of motion.
When your healing is complete, you should be able to fully use your elbow as you did before your injury. If you’re an athlete, Dr. Bennett will guide your safe return to the field. In most cases, you’ll continue with periodic stretching and strengthening exercises to keep the new tendon healthy.
If you’ve injured your elbow and need a comprehensive evaluation, call today or use the online scheduling option to book at your convenience.