Tommy John Surgery
Ross Hauser, MD.
Researchers have revealed some stunning statistics in regards to Tommy John Surgery – the famous surgical procedure named for the iconic baseball player, then Los Angeles Dodger Tommy John. In this procedure – a surgical graft procedure – the ulnar collateral ligament is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body (often from the forearm, hamstring, hip, knee, or foot of the patient). The procedure is common among collegiate and professional athletes in several sports, most notably baseball.
The Tommy John Surgery Epidemic
Appearing in January 2015 in the American Journal of Orthopedics, Brandon J. Erickson, MD wrote an editorial called the The Epidemic of Tommy John Surgery: The Role of the Orthopedic Surgeon. In this editorial Dr. Erickson discussed the realities of the surgery and rehabilitation period for young athletes and compared them to Major League Baseball pitchers.
Dr. Erickson cited that major leaguers even with an endless supply of rehabilitation facilities, trainers, etc, do not return to pitching competitively and consistently in the majors for more than 15 months after UCL reconstruction. The time commitment and rehabilitation required for these patients is staggering.
Furthermore, parents of these children who are consenting for them also have a difficult time comprehending the workload they are signing their child up for. Some parents believe this surgery will help their child throw faster, longer, and more accurately—beliefs that numerous studies have shown to be flat-out inaccurate. In fact, pitchers tend to lose a slight amount of velocity and accuracy after UCL reconstruction.
Dr. Erickson’s editorial is in agreement with numerous research studies.
Recently doctors presented their findings on Major League pitchers who had the procedure: (Research presented March 11, 2014 at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Annual Meeting).
- There have been 215 ulnar collateral reconstructions performed on Major League Baseball pitchers.
- There is a significant proportion of players (18%) who do not resume major league career.
- For those that return, a high proportion return to the disabled list, both for arm conditions (in general) and specifically for elbow pain (47% and 23%, respectively).
- Moreover, many performance statistics showed a decline following surgery, most notably in ERA, WHIP, opposing batting average, innings pitched, percentage of fastballs thrown and fastball velocity.”1
Parents and youth players’ expectations of Tommy John Surgery are unrealistic
Recently, researchers from Columbia University in New York published their findings suggesting that perhaps the surgery is over-performed and that patient expectations of surgery is not what the surgery does. Listen to what they said:
“Reconstruction of the elbow ulnar collateral ligament, known as Tommy John surgery, is being performed with increasing frequency. …
- The public’s perception of Tommy John surgery may be incorrect with regard to the indications, operative technique, risks, recovery time, and benefits obtained from the procedure.”2
They developed a questionnaire to measure an individual’s perception of Tommy John surgery. 189 players, 15 coaches, and 31 parents completed questionnaires. Data were calculated and statistical analysis was performed.
- An incredible 30% of coaches, 37% of parents, 51% of high school athletes, and 26% of collegiate athletes believed that Tommy John surgery should be performed on players without elbow injury to enhance performance.
- Thirty-one percent of coaches, 28% of players, and 25% of parents did not believe number of pitches thrown to be a risk factor, and 38% of coaches, 29% of players, and 25% of parents did not relate pitch type (eg, curve balls) with risk of injury.
- Many players (28%) and coaches (20%) believed that performance would be enhanced beyond pre-injury level.
- Individuals underestimated the time required to return to competition. Twenty-four percent of players, 20% of coaches, and 44% of parents believed that return would occur in less than nine months.
Here is what the researchers concluded:
“This study is the first of its kind to investigate public perception of Tommy John surgery and has identified an alarming percent of players, coaches, and parents with misperceptions. Efforts should be made in our communities to better educate players, coaches, and parents regarding elbow ulnar collateral ligament injury in youth baseball players.”2
In other words, the perceptions of Tommy John surgery are very troubling.
Caution for Tommy John Surgery
Why would these players, parents and coaches believe this? There are studies that suggest incredible recoveries from the surgery. “Ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction with subcutaneous ulnar nerve transposition was found to be effective in correcting valgus elbow instability in the overhead athlete and allowed most athletes (83%) to return to previous or higher level of competition in less than 1 year.”3
How can you argue with surgical results like that? One doctor did. The doctor who invented the “Tommy John” procedure, Frank Jobe, M.D. Dr. Jobe suggested that these results or increases in performance are generally due to two factors. The athlete’s increased awareness of training and conditioning and secondly – with increasing pitch load, pitchers velocity decreasing as the ligament becomes worn, frayed, lax. Following the procedure, and the months of down time, the procedure produces favorable results because they have a new “UCL”4
The first is pitchers’ increased attention to conditioning. The second is that in many cases it can take several years for the UCL to deteriorate. Over these years the pitcher’s velocity will gradually decrease. As a result, it is likely that the procedure simply allows the pitcher to throw at the velocity he could before his UCL started to degrade.4
Alternative to Tommy John Surgery
Stem Cell Therapy, Prolotherapy for elbow instability, and Platelet Rich Plasma Therapy are treatments that rebuild and strengthen ligaments without radical surgery. If the goal is more velocity, then Stem Cell Therapy, Prolotherapy and Platelet Rich Plasma therapy can often provide the ligament strengthen needed. Current research is proving this to be true: growth factor therapies are effective in healing musculoskeletal injuries. A recent article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed favorable results for a specific growth factor therapy, platelet rich plasma (PRP) injections to the elbow.
This study involved two groups of patients with elbow tendinopathy, or tennis elbow. Each of these patients had gone through unsuccessful physical therapy treatment for tennis elbow. For the therapy used in the study, each group had blood drawn to use as a treatment. One group had the blood injected straight back into the injured joint (autologous blood injection). The second group’s blood was centrifuged to separate the platelet-rich part of the blood that contains growth factors (Platelet Rich Plasma injection). All participants received two injections into the injured elbow spaced one month apart.
The results showed that 72% of the autologous injection group had favorable results while 66% of the PRP group had favorable outcomes. Both groups had low percentages of people who ended up getting surgery, with the PRP group at just 10% (lower than the autologous blood injection group).5
We see the results of PRP superior because we use PRP in conjunction with Prolotherapy. As noted in previous articles PRP is not a single injection to a single site and hope for the best? The above research performed exactly that, a single injection, delivered twice at a month interval. In our opinion that is not the way PRP should be administered. One of the basic tenets of why PRP would not be as successful as hoped is that joint instability usually does not come from a single lesion and therefore fixing a single lesion was not fixing the pain. The pitcher considering Tommy John surgery should consider an aggressive Platelet Rich Plasma treatment in conjunction with Prolotherapy.
References for this article
1. Performance Metrics Before and After Tommy John Surgery in 160 Professional Pitchers
2. Ahmad CS, Grantham WJ, Greiwe RM. Public perceptions of Tommy John surgery. Phys Sportsmed. 2012 May;40(2):64-72.
3 Cain EL Jr, Andrews JR, Dugas JR, Wilk KE, McMichael CS, et al.Outcome of ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction of the elbow in 1281 athletes: Results in 743 athletes with minimum 2-year follow-up. Am J Sports Med. 2010 Dec;38(12):2426-34. Epub 2010 Oct 7.
4. Keri, Jonah (2007-09-13). “Interview With Dr. Frank Jobe”. ESPN.com.
5. Creaney L, Wallace A, Curtis M, Connell D. Growth factor-based therapies provide additional benefit beyond physical therapy in resistant elbow tendinopathy: a prospective, single-blind, randomised trial of autologous blood injections versus platelet-rich plasma injections. Br J Sports Med. 2011 Sep;45(12):966-71. Epub 2011 Mar 15.