Baseball players and fans call it Tommy John surgery, after the pitcher who was the first to have the surgery 29 years ago. By any designation, it is one of the major advancements in sports medicine in the last quarter century. Technically it is a ulnar collateral ligament replacements procedure.
Pitching overhand is a particularly stressful motion; the strain it puts on a player's joint is commonly injurious. Pitchers such as Kerry Wood, Matt Morris, John Smoltz, Mariano Rivera, Tom Gordon, and Eric Gagne all have a four inch scar on their pitching arms as evidence of this career saving surgery.
These players typically perform as well, if not better, after the operation and have stronger arms, with radar gun readings to match. "It felt so good when I came back, I said I recommend it to everybody ... regardless what your ligament looks like," Chicago White Sox reliever Billy Koch says jokingly. He blew out his elbow in his third professional appearance, in 1997. A torn elbow ligament once was a pitcher's sentence to the broadcast booth or the monthly autograph show at the local Holiday Inn. No longer.
Tommy John surgery--technically an ulnar collateral ligament replacement procedure--has saved the careers of hundreds of Major League players. It may one day make the Hall of Fame case for its inventor, surgeon Frank Jobe (who was Hollywood enough to trademark the name "Tommy John procedure"). Thirty years after Jobe invented this surgery, baseball players are still using it.
The elbow is a hinge joint, moving in only one dimension (flex or extend), making it relatively simple from an architectural and functional standpoint. The humerus bone in the upper arm connects to the two bones of the forearm by means of various connective tissues. For a pitcher, one of the most important of these connections is the unlar collaterial ligament (UCL). The UCL offers much of the stability that is necessary for the elbow to withstand the extreme stresses created by throwing a baseball at high velocity. Its function is to stabilize against lateral forces and to keep the arm connected across the joint space.
Sometimes the UCL will weaken and stretch (technically a sprain), making it incompetent. Other times a catastrophic stress will cause the structure to "pop" or blow out. The injury isn't tremendously painful, and it can be incredibly difficult to diagnose without sophisticated imaging (such as an MRI), but incompetent or blown out, a damaged UCL will prevent a player from throwing at full velocity or with effective control.
Prior to 1974 it is unknown how many pitchers career’s may have been saved from this surgery. But today we do know that out of 700 pitchers in the major leagues 75 of them are Tommy John surgery patients. Many believe that Sandy Kofax’s “dead arm” may have been surgically repaired by this procedure.
Crudely described, what Jobe did was build John a new ligament. Since no artificial tissue can fully...