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Sports Medicine | Oct 8, 2018

Tommy John surgery is a procedure performed on the elbow, when the medial side ulnar collateral ligament is partially or fully torn. This method of surgery typically involves the harvesting of a tendon from the patient to perform the repair of the elbow.

The first Tommy John surgery was done by Dr. Frank Jobe. In September of 1974, Dr. Jobe had been treating Dodgers pitcher Tommy John for damage to the ulnar collateral ligament. Jobe took a tendon from John’s wrist, then drilled holes into the bones above and below the elbow (the ulna and humerus) so he could graft the tendon in place. Jobe used anchors secured into each bone to hold the tendon, which was stretched in a  basic figure-eight design.

Even Jobe was skeptical that his idea would work. In 2013 he admitted he only gave the new procedure “about a one in 100 chance” of working at the time. However, John returned to major league play only 18 months later, in April of 1976, and made a successful comeback.

In 1978, former Padres pitcher Brent Strom became Jobe’s second Tommy John surgery recipient. Strom did not return to major league play, but as a minor league player, his ERA was actually improved, going from 3.95 to 3.65.

In more recent years, the Angels drafted Mike Clevinger in the fourth round in in 2011. At the time, Clevinger was just recovering from Tommy John surgery. Clevinger recently pitched six scoreless innings as the Indians beat Detroit, 15-0, to earn a spot in the postseason with the 10th AL Central Division title in franchise history. Mets star Jacob DeGrom had Tommy John surgery in 2010, and he went on to be the NL Rookie of the Year in 2014. He recently was revealed to lead the National League in ERA and is a favorite for the coveted 2018 Cy Young nomination.

Tommy John surgery continues to rise in popularity. In 2016 alone, 19 players in the major leagues underwent the surgery. Prior to the development of Tommy John surgery, most of these players would have had their careers ended prematurely.

A reported 86 percent of all players who have had Tommy John surgery have been seen to return to their former competitive level of play, or even surpass former abilities. The usual recovery time after Tommy John surgery is 12-18 months, meaning many players only miss one season of play.

Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani just underwent Tommy John surgery, and is said to be doing well. Ohtani throws right-handed and bats left-handed, meaning the 24-year-old rookie can finish this season and even play next year as a designated hitter. He is expected to return to the pitcher’s mound in 2020, when healing from his surgery will be complete and his rehabilitation finished.

Dr. Scott Strasburger performs Tommy John for athletes and trained under the renowned Dr. James Andrews. Contact Strasburger Orthopaedics for more information.