Practice makes perfect. Or at least gets you closer to your goals. But because practice in baseball involves making the same motions over and over, it can also cause an injury.
If you tore the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in your elbow, you might wonder if you’ll ever play again. One of baseball’s greats — pitcher Tommy John — faced the same fears (and pain) that you’re dealing with now.
After a UCL injury, repair, and recovery, he was the first Major Leaguer to successfully resume his baseball career despite undergoing major elbow surgery. The procedure was named Tommy John surgery in his honor. In one small study, 75% of professional pitchers who received Tommy John surgery were able to return to their games.
David Lintner, MD, an orthopedic and sports medicine expert, specializes in the Tommy John surgery along with other elbow procedures. He’s the leading provider of Tommy John surgery in the Houston area and the Houston Astros’ team physician.
At Houston Methodist Orthopedics & Sports Medicine in Houston and Baytown, Texas, Dr. Lintner performs Tommy John surgery on athletes of all ages and skill levels. Whether you tore your UCL during a high school football game, Little League baseball, or on a professional athletic field, he can get you back into play again.
The importance of your UCL
Elbow injuries are common in athletes of skill levels, and ages. Tearing your UCL is a particular danger for athletes who throw overhead, which is why so many pitchers experience this type of injury. However, you can tear your UCL playing other sports, too.
Your UCL runs on the inner side of your elbow and connects the end of your humerus (upper arm) to your ulnar bone in your lower arm. The UCL helps stabilize your elbow joint.
Athletes are prone to joint injuries because they place so much stress on them during practice and play. Repetitive motions, such as throwing a pitch or swinging a racquet, subject your joints to the same stresses over and over. You might also tear your UCL during a collision or fall.
At first, you might not realize that you tore your UCL during a game because the excitement of play releases endorphins that dull pain. But if you have symptoms such as a swollen, stiff, or painful elbow, or if you’re having trouble gripping objects, you could have a torn UCL.
If your UCL was merely stretched, or if the tear isn’t severe, Dr. Lintner may recommend rest, bracing, or other nonsurgical treatments. However, if your UCL was torn completely or can’t heal on its own, Dr. Lintner may advise Tommy John surgery.
What happens during Tommy John surgery
If you undergo Tommy John surgery, you’ll be in the hospital under general anesthesia. The surgery consists of two parts: harvesting a ligament graft and then repairing the UCL.
Dr. Lintner may take the graft from one of your other ligaments, such as your:
- Hamstring tendon
- Forearm tendon
- Big toe extensor tendon
He then makes a 3-4 inch incision on the outside of your elbow. He then cleans away any damaged tissue. If your UCL is completely torn, he will repair it with sutures. Otherwise, part of your UCL can be sewn to and stabilize the graft. He threads the tendon graft through the holes and then secures them with anchors, sutures, or screws.
Dr. Lintner then adds allografts, such as BioECM® amniotic membrane graft, which supplies growth factors, collagens, and BioActive® molecules that help your graft heal. He may also protect your graft while it heals and matures with an Arthrex® internal brace.
Both the BioECM® amniotic membrane graft and Arthrex® internal brace speed up healing so that you can get back to your game as soon as possible. Dr. Lintner also offers platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy to provide your body with extra growth factors and proteins to accelerate healing. The PRP serum is made from your own blood.
You may need up to four months of recovery and physical therapy to regain normal mobility in your elbow. If you’re a professional athlete, you may need up to nine months of recovery and rehab.
If you think you tore your UCL, contact us about Tommy John surgery today. Call the office nearest you, or set up an appointment online.