Tag Archives: surgery

What is Tommy John surgery?

Baseball card of Tommy John for the Los Angeles Dodgers
From Zellner, “A History and Overview of Tommy John Surgery,” Orthopedic & Sports Medicine Specialists

In July of 1974, Tommy John, pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, felt a twinge in his throwing arm, and could no longer pitch. Dr. Frank Jobe tried a new kind of surgery on John’s elbow, and after missing only one season, Tommy John returned to the mound in 1976 and continued pitching until 1989.

How?

The surgery which bears Tommy John’s name is by now a common buzzword in the baseball community. Over 500 professional and hundreds of lower level players have received this treatment, but even the most avid fan may still be unsure what it means.

Tommy John surgery is the colloquial name for surgery on the Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL). This ligament is vital to the elbow, especially in the throwing motion. Injury to the UCL accrues over time; fraying and eventual tearing occurs after repeated and vigorous use. Baseball pitchers, throwing around 100 times per game and at speeds upwards of 100 mph, put themselves in danger of UCL injury.

Location of the Ulnar Collateral Ligament in the human arm, shown on a baseball pitcher.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Tendons in the elbow joint, with the Ulnar Collateral Ligament marked
Image from Wikimedia Commons

What can be done when a player injures his or her UCL?

Prior to 1974, not much. Ice and rest, the most common suggestions, would do little to improve serious UCL damage. A “dead arm” spelled the end of a player’s career. Dr. Jobe would change that. 

Jobe removed part of a tendon from Tommy John’s non-pitching forearm and grafted it into place in the elbow. John’s recovery required daily physical therapy before slowly starting to throw again.

Since Jobe’s pioneer surgery on Tommy John, most patients undergo a similar kind of reconstruction procedure. A tendon from either the forearm (palmaris longus) or the hamstring (gracilis), is looped through holes drilled in the humerus and ulna, the bones of the upper arm and inner side of the forearm. In some modern cases, the hope is to repair the UCL with a brace that lets it heal itself rather than total replacement. This allows for faster recovery time because the new blood vessels that have to form in traditional ligament replacement are unnecessary. In either case, athletes recovering from UCL surgery, a procedure which itself takes less than two hours, typically require at least a year to restore elbow stability, function, and strength.

Some misconceptions about Tommy John surgery exist. One 2015 study found that nearly 20% of those surveyed believe the surgery increases pitch speed. However, increase in pitch speed may be affected more by the extensive rehabilitation process rather than the new tendon itself.

The study also found that more than a third of coaches and more than a quarter of high school and collegiate athletes believe the surgery to be valuable for a player without an injured elbow. This perception of Tommy John surgery makes it seem like a superhuman kind of enhancement, as if out of The Rookie of the Year, or worse, it becomes like a performance enhancing drug. In reality, a replacement UCL at best replicates normal elbow behavior. A procedure capable of creating a superhero might be attractive, but for now, Tommy John surgery just helps players get back in the game.

 

For further information:

 

How Many MLB Players Have Had Tommy John Surgery?

Brace yourself… You might need surgery

A surgery? For my PCL? Could be more likely than you think.

Usually hiding behind it’s annoying and commonly ruptured brother the ACL, the PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) is a durable ligament that usually doesn’t cause problems for athletes… until it does.

Because of the strong nature of the ligament, injuries that tear the PCL are usually sudden and traumatic. Think car accidents, falling hard on a bent knee… you get the picture. When enough force is applied to the top of the tibia, the tibia can be pushed backwards, past the threshold of the PCL. Even though the PCL does its best to hold your femur and tibia together in the right spot, it just doesn’t hold up to the brute force of a dashboard. These injuries can usually be diagnosed by the presence of a “sag.” When your doctor holds your bent knee up, it looks like your shin bone is sagging underneath your knee. This is your torn PCL crying for aid.

A photo showing the location of the PCL and ACL inside of the right knee. The ACL crosses from left to right over the PCL. Both are attached at the top to the femur and at the bottom to the tibia.

When it comes to fixing these injuries, the nonsurgical approach has typically been recommended for low-grade tears that don’t totally rip the PCL apart. These braces are attached to the leg right above the knee, and are supposed to hold the bottom part of your leg under the knee in place. This prevents from your knee from going too far forwards and backwards, and allows scar tissue to build up over your PCL. While your body tries to heal itself with scar tissue, you will work with a physical therapist to build up your quad strength and restore your range of motion. Over 80% of athletes are able to return to play after bracing their knees.

A PCL brace is shown in place on a knee. There are two stabilizing straps above the knee, and two below the knee. They are connected by a metal frame that meets at a hinge joint over the side of the knee.

However, surgery, which was once only reserved for extreme PCL tears, is now seen as a viable, cost-efficient option for even low-grade tears. PCL surgery is intended to restore normal knee biomechanics and stability to about 90% of their post-injury strength. Sometimes, a part of the Achilles tendon is used to create a graft, or a “new” PCL. This is called an allograft, and results in safer and shorter surgeries (8). Within a month, the athlete can walk and bear their own weight. After six months, athletes are able to return to sports.

In theory, surgery sounds like the most “permanently good” option there is for fixing your PCL. However, no scientific studies have yet been done that can accurately compare the return-to-play rates, or even the relative healing of people in braces versus people who immediately got surgery. When people don’t comply with their treatment plans (aka, take off their braces early, skip physical therapy after surgery, etc.) the data for comparisons between bracing and getting surgery aren’t clear. While your PCL may be out of commission, so is the jury on this one. At the end of the day, the best treatment method for you is dependent on the mechanism of injury, severity of your injury, and whether you plan on listening to your doctor or not!

For more info on PCLs:

Posterior Cruciate Ligament Injury

Management of PCL tears

ACL Reconstruction: Which Option Is Best For You?

200,000 ACL injuries occur each year, and ACL reconstruction is the 6th most performed surgery in the United States, so to come back bigger, faster, and stronger, the right recovery path is critical.

The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is a critical part of the knee joint that connects the femur (‘thighbone’) to the tibia (‘shinbone’). Its main functions are to support the knee joint during side-to-side motion, such as cutting, shuffling, or pivoting, and to prevent the tibia from moving too far forward relative to the femur. When an ACL ruptures, it is very common to reconstruct it to bring someone back to performance level.

Location of the ACL inside the knee joint with other labeled bones and ligaments with another diagram showing a ruptured ACL.
Image from Wikimedia Commons “Anterior Cruciate Ligament”

The basis of ACL reconstruction is using living tissue, also known as grafts, to replace, and function as a substitute, for the torn ACL. There are four types of ACL reconstruction surgeries that use different types of grafts. Those four types of surgeries are classified as autograft reconstruction, allograft reconstruction, xenograft reconstruction, and synthetic reconstruction. Autograft surgeries require one’s own grafts to repair the ACL, allografts require a cadaver’s grafts to repair the ACL, xenografts require an animal’s grafts, and synthetics require manufactured materials. Additional articles on xenograft reconstruction and synthetic reconstruction can be accessed here and here.

Each surgery requires the removal of the damaged ACL, and then the incorporation of a new substitute by tunneling the newly selected graft through the femur and tibia. Within the autograft group, the two popular grafts for reconstruction are patellar tendon and hamstring tendon, with quadricep tendon being another, less popular, choice. The patellar tendon surgery takes the middle third of the patellar tendon, a tendon that connects the kneecap to the tibia, and makes sure to include the bony ends.

The hamstring tendon surgery takes two small slivers of each of the two hamstring tendons, connecting the hamstring muscle to the tibia, coils them up, and then finally bundling them to increase strength.

A knee joint with bones, ligaments, and tendons labeled.
Image from Wikipedia “Knee Joint”

For the allograft surgeries, a surgeon may select an Achilles, patellar, hamstring, or quadricep tendon from the donor.

It is very important to choose the right surgery. While the determination of which surgery and technique to perform falls heavily on the surgeon’s and patient’s preference, there are advantages and disadvantages of each technique which tend to persuade the choice of surgery. The main concepts surrounding the decision of which surgery to perform are the activeness of the patient, muscle strength, and previous knee injuries. Depending on the job, sport, or activity of the patient and the desired return time, one technique may be a better fit.

For a patient participating in low demand activities, allograft surgery may be the best fit due to less post-surgery pain and quicker surgery time, however it is very expensive and offers less tensile strength compared to autografts. As for autograft surgeries, patellar tendon reconstruction allows faster recovery time due to the bone-to-bone bonding and offers a strong substitute for a torn ACL, however future knee pain is very common. Hamstring tendon reconstruction requires more recovery time; however, the post-surgery pain is significantly less than the patellar tendon reconstruction and the tensile strength of the hamstring tendon is the strongest possible substitute.

Additional reading and comparisons between the popular autografts and allograft techniques can be accessed here and here.

Back Against the (John) Wall

What would you do if you went to the doctor expecting to get back to work, only to be told you might not ever be able to go back to work again?

According to ESPN, on February 4, John Wall visited his doctor regarding an infection in his heel after a previous operation. The doctor checked the infection, but upon further analysis, realized that Wall had suffered a partial Achilles tear. Unlike former teammate Boogie Cousins, he did not suffer the tear on the court, but at home. It was reported that while at home he fell and experienced extra discomfort in his heel. His doctor reported that he will undergo surgery and will likely rehab for the next 11 to 15 months.

Achilles Ache

The Achilles is a tendon (tissue that attaches muscle to bone) connecting the bottom of one’s calf to the back of the heel, as shown in Figure 1. It is famously named after the Greek hero whose only weakness was the back of his heel.

An Achilles tendon attached to the heel and calf (Soleus).
Figure 1: This shows the lower half of a human’s leg, where the Achilles tendon is attached to both the heel and calf (Soleus). Modified from Wikimedia Commons.

According to “The Achilles tendon: fundamental properties and mechanisms governing healing” by Freedman et al, the Achilles tendon is the strongest and largest tendon in the entire body, and can bear up to 3500N, or almost 800lb, before completely rupturing. This is a result of the materials that the Achilles is made of. The tendon is 90% collagen, which forms a structure full of fibers that are bound together by other molecules. The tendon is 2% elastin, which like the name suggests, adds some elastic, or stretchy, properties. The tendon is sometimes characterized as a viscoelastic material, meaning it has both viscous (slow to deform) and elastic properties. However, the Achilles is mostly elastic, allowing it to bear relatively high impacts and loads.

Healing the Heel

The Achilles, much like other tendons and ligaments, has interesting healing characteristics and procedures. There are two common recoveries for a tear in the Achilles: a surgery that stitches the ends of the tears together followed by rehabilitation, or a period of rest followed by rehabilitation. For a full tear, surgery is very common, as the torn tendon ends are not always spatially close enough for natural healing processes to occur. For a partial tear, a doctor in consultation with the patient will decide which of the two options will be best.

Experimental Excitement

While there is much more to study with regards to Achilles tear recovery, there is a lot of exciting research being performed on animal models. One study shows that stretching and compressing the Achilles at certain angles during recovery may lead to better long term health of the Achilles. Another study shows the efficacy of stem cell therapies. A third study shows the usefulness of incorporating a 3D printed structure to integrate the ends of torn Achilles. Essentially, this would connect each end with a scaffold that allows for the reintegration of the tendon. This is very similar to an experimental ACL reconstruction technique called BEAR. A video about BEAR can be seen below.

Although John Wall’s career may be in doubt, the future for effective therapies in treating Achilles related injuries is promising. This is exciting for the future, and hopefully will make for a better patient experience. To read more about the Achilles, click here or here.