Friday, April 16, 2010

What a new study ignores re: Tommy John surgery

A new study finds that 95 percent of skeletally mature high school pitchers were satisfied with their Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. Almost as many (94.7 percent) returned to competitive baseball.

This is great news for young players who've been over pitched to the point that their elbows just quit. If they have the surgery, they're likely to be happy with the results. All but a few will get back to playing baseball.

My son had Tommy John surgery in 2006. He returned to baseball and, four years later, I think would say he's satisfied with the results. Still, it was an experience well worth avoiding. A few reasons why:

It's a serious operation performed under general anaesthesia. I can remember well my son's surgeon meeting with us before surgery and seeking his signature on a consent form. It detailed the things that could go wrong during this or any major operation: chance of damage to arteries or nerves, blood clots, stroke and death.

The rehab is grueling. It took months of work - two or three as I remember - before my son could straighten his arm. It was another month or two before he began gently tossing a baseball and his first game back as a pitcher was more than a year after the operation. For much of that time, he was seeing a physical therapist each week, sometimes several times a week.

There were doubts and setbacks. After some workouts - this was many months into his recovery - he'd report strange feelings in his arm. Phantom pains. Numbness. It was difficult to know whether these signaled that the operation had failed or simply were part of the healing process. In any case, they caused concern.

It wasn't cheap. I don't know the full amount that we and our insurance carrier spent getting my son's fastball back. Conservatively, I'd say $15,000.

So while I'm glad that Tommy John surgery has recorded a 95 percent patient satisfaction rate, my question to parents of young pitchers: How much more satisfying would it be to avoid the surgery?

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