Tommy John Surgery - What a Story

Major league pitcher Tommy John served as the catalyst for the development of ulnar collateral ligament repair surgery after he ruptured the ligament in 1974.

This article originally appeared online at Dr.Pullen.com.

When major league pitcher Tommy John ruptured his ulnar collateral ligament in 1974 he joined innumerable previous big league pitchers whose careers were ended by this injury. Throwing a pitch overhand at a very high velocity puts a great stress on the ulnar collateral ligament. This ligament keeps the arm below the elbow from pulling away from the arm above the elbow when a stress is placed on the arm pulling the arm outward. Such famous pitchers as Sandy Kofax had their careers end prematurely because of this injury.

When Tommy John was in the prime of his career he sustained an ulnar collateral ligamet tear. At the time he had 124 major league wins, and was leading the National League with a 13-3 record for the Dodgers in 1974 when he sustained this injury. He was not willing to accept the inevitability of no longer pitching and he asked Dr. Frank Jobe, the Dodgers team physician, and a renowned orthopedic surgeon, to “Make something up” to repair his elbow. Thus came the first and most famous case of ulnar collateral ligament repair. Dr. Jobe aptly named and trademarked the procedure “Tommy John Surgery.” Tommy John went on to win 164 more major league games after his year long rehabilitation from the surgery, and never missed another game due to elbow problems.

It was reported by USA Today that in the 2002-3 seasons approximately 1 in 9 major league pitchers had undergone Tommy John surgery. It is suspected that prior to 1974 many major league pitchers, and many pitchers who never made it to the minor leagues had their careers shortened by this common pitching injury. To read an excellent article about what Tommy John surgery entails, and check out the details of the procedure itself, check out:

Inside Tommy John Surgery : Thirty Years of Fixing Pitchers by Will Carroll and Thomas Gorman

Also see the Boston Globe article about Tommy John and his story: Original ‘Tommy John’ surgery paved way.

Ed Pullen, MD, is a board-certified family physician practicing in Puyallup, WA. He blogs at DrPullen.com — A Medical Bog for the Informed Patient.