Four Facts About Tommy John Surgery for a UCL Tear

Image of a baseball pitcher on a mound after throwing a baseball. Recently it was announced that Brewers pitcher, Brent Suter, suffered an ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tear and will likely be off the playing field for at least a year. To fix his torn UCL – a tendon tear in the elbow usually caused by repetitive, strenuous use – Suter will need to undergo Tommy John surgery.

Sports injuries like UCL tears are commonplace in today’s active world. Though most common in baseball players, athletes of any kind could succumb to an elbow injury, especially if they participate in a sport that involves heavy lifting or repetitive throwing. Like Suter, many people with UCL tears opt for Tommy John surgery, a procedure named after a major league baseball player who tore his ligament and had it repaired by a pioneering surgeon in the 1970s. The procedure involves repairing the torn ligament by replacing it with a tendon from another part of the body (or from a tissue donor).

For those considering surgical treatment options, here are four facts about Tommy John surgery for a torn UCL:

Fact #1: Conservative treatment options should come first.

Tommy John surgery (also known as UCL reconstruction) is typically recommended only after nonsurgical efforts have been exhausted. Because no surgery is without risk, a trial of conservative treatment should be given adequate time before considering surgery. This is especially important in high school and college athletes. If nonsurgical options aren’t helping you heal and return to play, then it’s time to discuss Tommy John surgery with your doctor.

Nonsurgical options include:

Fact #2: A torn UCL may not keep you from your daily activities.

In fact, many people with UCL injuries can still lift weights and participate in non-throwing activities such as running, skating or soccer.

Fact #3: Recovery from Tommy John surgery is longer than you may think.

As in Brent Suter’s case, recovery from surgery can take several months. Physical therapy usually begins the first week after surgery and continues until the patient regains full range of motion. It is typically 9-12 months before an athlete can safely return to play.

Fact #4: UCL injuries usually don’t happen overnight.

While the initial tear can happen immediately, usually it stems from a long history of repetitive motion and overuse. The important thing is to take care of your elbow and notice the signs of a possible tear.

Common symptoms of a UCL tear include:

  • A sudden pop or pain at the inside of the elbow
  • Pain when throwing a ball (and/or an inability to continue throwing)
  • Tingling or numbness in the pinky and ring fingers

Additionally, parents of young athletes should listen to their child and pay close attention to any complaints of injuries. If he or she is doing a repetitive action and starts to have aches and pains, those should be taken seriously to avoid more significant injury. More information about common elbow injuries in youth athletics is available in the video below:

For specific questions or concerns, contact our office to schedule a consultation.

About the Author:

Charles Rhoades, M.D., orthopedic surgeon, specializes in treating knee, shoulder, elbow and hand and wrist conditions.

Charles E. Rhoades, M.D., is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon specializing in conditions of the hand and upper extremities. His other areas of expertise involve the shoulder and sports injuries of the knee.

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