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Here’s to Tommy John!

If you’re a baseball pitcher, chances are you are very familiar with your ulnar collateral ligament. And chances are you know the name Tommy John.

By one estimate, 2,400 professional baseball pitchers and players have had what’s known as the Tommy John surgery. 

The procedure was named for a Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who had a 13-3 record in July of 1974 when, one night on the mound, he felt something strange after throwing a sinking fastball. “It felt as if I had left my arm someplace else,” he said. “It was as if my body continued to go forward and my left arm had just flown out to right field, independent of the rest of me.”

When time and ice didn’t restore his throwing motion, John opted to let the team surgeon perform a revolutionary operation. At least, it had never been done as a means to try and save a pitcher’s career.

Tommy John’s ulnar collateral ligament was replaced by a tendon from his forearm. (The same procedure had been used to help people with polio.)  Dr. Frank Jobe removed the palmaris longus tendon from John’s right arm, drilled four holes in his left elbow and then used the tendon to replace the torn ligament.

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of that very first surgery.

This video offers a clear explanation of how the damage is caused and the fix.

It took John 18 months for Tommy John to work his way back on the mound, but he returned to the major leagues. 

And not merely “return.” In fact, he spent 14 more years as a big-league pitcher.

Fun fact: he won 40 more games after the surgery (164) than he won before (124).

Fun fact No. 2: Tommy’s son Tommy John III grew up to become a chiropractor and wrote a book called Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance: A Sports Parent's Survival Guide, which suggests ways to prevent youth from ever having to undergo major sports-related surgery, such as Tommy John surgery.

In fact, kids between the ages of 15 to 19 years old account for 57 percent of all Tommy John surgeries, according to one report.

Now, Tommy John surgery is considered routine—though no less disruptive to a pitcher’s playing career. The recovery time is typically about a year from surgery to returning to a big-league game. Nonetheless, Los Angeles Dodgers physician Dr. Neal ElAttrache estimates 80% of pitchers return to their prior performance level.

Tommy John surgery has been performed on pro baseball players more than 2,400 times, according to data collected by baseball researcher Jon Roegele.

It’s a fairly remarkable surgical step. Consider that tendon, taking on a new life and function. And consider the doctors, who have to set the tendon in the right place and create the proper tension so the pitching motion can be regained.

No stable elbow, no ability to pitch! So when you tune into Major League Baseball’s new season (most teams start playing on March 28), give a thanks to Tommy John, his surgeon, and all those working elbows.

Fun fact #3: ‘Elbow’ in German is ‘Ellenbogen.’ Bogen means bow or bend. And Ellen is the plural of Elle, the ulna, that is one of two lower arm bones. Thus the combination of Ellenbogen means “bend of the lower arm.”

And that’s a pretty good description of the elbow!






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