What Can I Expect After Tommy John Surgery?

What Can I Expect After Tommy John Surgery?

Baseball may be America’s Favorite Past Time, but it can be tough on the people who play the beloved sport. Collegiate and professional athletes are naturally more prone to injury, and soft tissue injuries can be difficult to treat, posing challenges when it comes to healing. For pitchers, elbow injuries require special care. 

At Victory Sports Medicine & OrthopedicsMarc Pietropaoli, MD, is a reliable and experienced physician who frequently treats patients dealing with all types of sports injuries. At our practice in Skaneateles, New York, Dr. Pietropaoli offers Tommy John surgery for pitchers in pain, and keeps you abreast and informed as you heal from the procedure. 

Why do I need Tommy John surgery?

Tommy John surgery was first performed in 1974, and was named for the first patient of the procedure, Los Angeles Dodgers’ Pitcher Tommy John. The same pitches that elevated the Dodgers in the public’s imagination took their toll on John, who began to experience pain that was so severe, he was unable to continue playing without treatment. 

The problem turned out to be John’s UCL, or ulnar collateral ligament. The UCL connects the two major bones in your arm — the longer humerus, and the shorter ulna, which connects to your wrist. Like any ligament, the UCL is prone to overuse injuries, including sprains, and tears. 

While any sports injury should be immediately treated with rest, ice, and compression, torn UCLs will require more, and may remain quite painful, even after the use of pain medication. When the pain is coupled with a loose or unstable elbow, an irritated ring or pinky finger, and an inability to throw, this is often indicative of a torn UCL. 

Pitchers aren’t the only athletes who are vulnerable to a torn UCL. Cheerleaders, wrestlers, javelin throwers, tennis players, and gymnasts can be affected by this injury. Skipping treatment would easily mean losing the full use of the affected arm, as well as experiencing chronic pain. 

What can I expect after Tommy John surgery?

Tommy John surgery starts with a proper diagnosis. This condition can be difficult to diagnose, so Dr. Pietropaoli uses a combination of testing and his own expertise to diagnose a torn UCL. Regarding surgery, part of the preparation process is harvesting tendon tissue from another part of your body to replace/reconstruct the torn ligament. If you don’t have enough to spare, donor tissue can be used. 

While you’re under general anesthesia, a small incision is made near your elbow, allowing Dr. Pietropaoli to attach the graft between the two bones using tunnels that he drills carefully based on expert training and years of experience since 1997. Dr. Pietropaoli trained under world renowned sports medicine surgeon, the GOAT of sports medicine surgeons, Dr. James Andrews from 1997-1998. Once the graft is secured to your elbow, he carefully cleans and sutures the area after the procedure is complete. The procedure takes up to 90 minutes, and you will need a ride home when you’re cleared by Dr. Pietropaoli. 

After your Tommy John surgery, rehabilitation happens in three phases. Before you are awake, Dr. Pietropaoli initiates the first phase of recovery by applying a brace/sling to your elbow that keeps the joint at a 60- to 90-degree angle. This brace/sling stays on for up to 10 days-2 weeks or longer depending on several factors. Organized and experienced physical therapy is started the day after surgery. During this time, you’ll follow strict instructions for rest and gentle stretching for your shoulder and wrist. 

The second phase of healing introduces gentle strengthening exercises for the elbow. It’s important to be careful and deliberate with your elbow, and follow the advice from Dr. Pietropaoli, as well as advice from any physical therapist assigned to you. For sports injury surgeries, proper healing is the key to ensuring a full recovery. Dr. Pietropaoli always says the rehab is just as important, if not more important, than the surgery itself.

The third and last phase of healing allows for full range-of-motion exercises under the supervision of Dr. Pietropaoli. Prepare for additional months of progressively challenging strength building that will ultimately prepare you to get back to helping your team win. Tommy John, the first recipient of this procedure, was able to successfully return to the Dodgers.

Is there anything I should watch for?

This is a common procedure, and complications can occur in up to 20% of recipients. Most of these complications involve irritation and sometimes damage to the ulnar nerve, the major nerve in the elbow. Usually, as in Tommy John’s case himself, it is temporary. It is, however, rare that a patient experiences complications that require additional procedures. If you’re experiencing unmanageable pain, let Dr. Pietropaoli and his staff know so that he can help you.

My elbow is bothering me 

Whether you’re an athlete or not, overuse injuries are common injuries. Tommy John Surgery is a major procedure that can require a year of careful healing and diligent care. Before recommending any treatment, Dr. Pietropaoli will sit with you for a full consultation. If you’re having trouble lifting or throwing, and are experiencing elbow pain, call us today at 315-303-8352, or book an appointment with us online.

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