Recovering From A Torn Ligament: The Story of Tommy John

A sports agent called me recently about a baseball player who was about to have “Tommy John surgery” and asked whether it would be covered under workers’ compensation. I had heard about this surgery for years but never knew much about it, so I asked Elayna Slocum, a paralegal in my office, to do some research.

Tommy John was a professional pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers who, in 1974, damaged his ulnar collateral ligament (a thick band of tissue similar to a very strong rubber band that works with the lateral collateral ligament to stabilize and strengthen the elbow). Throwing activities place unusual levels of stress on the elbow, making injury to the area more likely in baseball players, but it also seen in other sports such as softball, football, tennis and golf. In 1974, this type of injury was considered to be a career-ending event for a professional baseball pitcher. However, Tommy John decided to have an Ulnar Collateral Ligament Reconstruction (UCLR), a procedure that was experimental at the time, to replace the injured ligament with a tendon from his other arm. Less commonly, a donor tendon may be utilized in lieu of the patient’s own tendon.

He was not expected to be able to pitch again, but after a year of rehabilitating his arm, the results were extraordinary. John was able to return to pitching in 1976 and went on to pitch professionally for thirteen more years. Thus, the UCLR procedure became commonly known as “Tommy John surgery.” Many athletes who have had this procedure report feeling that their arm is actually stronger than prior to surgery. The vast majority make a complete recovery and yes, it should be covered by workers’ compensation.

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