News that the groundhog didn’t see his shadow isn’t the only indication that spring is on the way. Spring means baseball, longer days and hot dogs and sunflower seeds at the baseball game. With pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training this week, fans are filled with a fresh sense of optimism that their favorite team will be a contender. Sports news begins to focus on players who have moved to new teams and those that are returning from injury.
In the baseball world, no injury captures more attention than “Tommy John” surgery. Named for the first player, Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Tommy John, that underwent successful surgery for repair of a torn elbow ligament in 1973, the injury and surgery result in a year of lost play. Thankfully, for those that experience the injury, usually pitchers, most are able to return to a prior level of performance.
However, many have the misconception that the surgery will actually enhance performance and physicians have reported many instances of young athletes asking for the surgery with any sign of elbow soreness. Dr. Thomas Ahmad, orthopedic surgeon for the New York Yankees, recently published a study in The Physician and Sports Medicine that showed 50% of the student athletes surveyed believed that Tommy John surgery should be performed in the absence of injury.
This research, along with the concerning rise of overuse arm injuries in high school aged athletes, suggests the trend that coaches and athletes have become more reckless with health, falsely believing that surgery can correct everything. In a recent study, research by Dr. James Andrews reported that 5% of all youth baseball players will develop elbow or shoulder problems that will require surgery or force them to give up baseball, most of which are linked with the amount of pitching.
If the UCL elbow ligament ruptures and Tommy John elbow surgery is needed, an extensive rehabilitation program is needed to regain the range of motion and strength required for a return to throwing. After 5-6 months of physical therapy, a progressive throwing program can be started.
Many of these injuries result from a combination of poor mechanics and the year-round format of many youth sports. Physicians recommend that youth pitchers take at least 2-3 months a year off of throwing so that their tissue can recover and avoid rupture. It is important that players, parents and coaches understand that a young athlete’s muscles and bones are growing and need to be protected from overuse. Given the inherent risks and lack of guaranteed success, surgery should never be considered a performance enhancer but rather a means to hopefully restore the lost function of a joint.