Tommy John Surgery: Is It Right For You?

Is Tommy John Surgery Right For You? Learn about this common procedure for athletes with elbow injuries, its benefits, and how to find top orthopedic care in San Francisco. Discover if surgery could restore your athletic performance and eliminate pain.

Baseball pitcher throws a pitch from the mound San Francisco

As an athlete, you aren’t any stranger to aches and pains. In fact, injuries from sports activities are quite common. While most sports injuries are obvious, there are some injuries that athletes may try to “play through the pain” with. One such injury is the stretching or tearing of your ulnar collateral ligament — also called a Tommy John injury. This is a common injury for athletes who perform repetitive throwing motions, such as baseball pitchers and javelin throwers.

For some, a Tommy John injury may start as a run-of-the-mill sore muscle — but it can quickly become painful and affect your athletic performance. Thankfully, there is a surgical procedure that can relieve your pain and get you back in the game. Read on to learn if a Tommy John surgery is right for you and where to find the best orthopedic surgeon in San Fransico who can do it.

What is Tommy John Surgery?

A "Tommy John" surgery is a procedure that repairs a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of the elbow. This is a common injury among athletes—particularly those who use their elbows, like baseball pitchers. The surgery got its name after the first professional baseball player to undergo it back in 1974. Since then, it has become popular for athletes with throwing arm pain.

How is a Tommy John Surgery Performed?

The Tommy John surgery uses a tendon graft to reconstruct the damaged ligament and stabilize the elbow joint. This graft can be taken from one of your own tendons or a cadaver. After surgery and rehabilitation, many athletes return to their previous level of performance.

Who is at Risk for a Tommy John Injury?

Tommy John injuries are common among athletes who perform repetitive overhead throwing motions (repetitive strain injury), including:

  • Baseball pitchers

  • Football quarterbacks

  • Gymnasts

  • Tennis players

  • Volleyball players

Repetitive strain injuries are a category of injuries caused by repeated motions or prolonged strain on certain body parts, particularly affecting tendons, muscles, and nerves. Commonly seen in athletes but also individuals who perform repetitive tasks such as manual labor or assembly line work, symptoms can include pain, swelling, numbness, and decreased mobility.

Do You Need a Tommy John Surgery?

Athletes often deal with stiffness and pain throughout their athletic careers. However, playing through pain can make a bad injury worse and put you on the bench for a longer amount of time. If you experience any of the following symptoms, you may benefit from a Tommy John surgery in San Francisco:

  • Feeling a pop sensation, followed by pain in the inner part of your elbow

  • Swelling in the elbow

  • Elbow pain and stiffness

  • Reduced range of motion in the arm

  • Bruising of the inner elbow

  • Decreased grip strength

  • Pain or inability to make a throwing motion

  • Difficulty fully extending your arm

  • Decreased speed or accuracy of throws

How are Tommy John Injuries Diagnosed?

Your symptoms and risk factors are a good indication of whether you could benefit from a Tommy John surgery. However, an orthopedic doctor will likely perform a few tests to be sure. Some of the tests used to diagnose Tommy John injuries include:

  • Physical examination

  • X-rays

  • MRIs

How is the Tommy John Surgery Performed?

A small incision is made on the inside of the affected elbow joint, then a tendon graft is used to replace the damaged ulnar collateral ligament. A typical Tommy John procedure takes 60 to 90 minutes to perform and is usually done in an outpatient setting — meaning you can usually go home the same day.

Recovery from Tommy John surgery may take several weeks or months, depending on your overall health and ability to do physical therapy. Typically, physical therapy or home exercises are recommended to regain your strength and range of motion.

Benefits of Getting a Tommy John Surgery

A Tommy John surgeon in San Francisco can help you get back to normal because it has a successful track record of relieving pain and restoring full elbow use. In fact, 80 to 95% of professional baseball pitchers return to play with equal or better performance after getting Tommy John surgery.

The benefits of Tommy John surgery include:

  • Restored stability and strength of the arm

  • Pain relief

  • Restored grip strength

  • Regaining full range of motion of the affected arm and elbow

  • Return to athletic performance

  • High success rate with surgery

Finding a Tommy John Surgeon in the Bay Area

A Tommy John surgery can be a literal game-changer for athletes suffering from pain or a limited range of motion. Finding a board-certified orthopedic surgeon you can trust is the first step in your journey to pain-free performance.

Dr. James Chen leads a team of San Francisco’s best orthopedic surgeons and specializes in Tommy John procedures along with comprehensive orthopedic care. With state-of-the-art surgical suites and the latest technology in orthopedic surgery, you can expect the highest-quality surgical care and compassionate recovery care from Dr. Chen and his team.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of a Tommy John injury and want to find out if surgery is the best option for you, Dr. Chen is accepting new patients in San Francisco.

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