Tommy John surgeries increasing for young athletes

As youth sports become more competitive, it is increasingly common for young athletes to undergo surgery. One surgery on the rise is “Tommy John surgery,” according to recent research presented to the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM).

The research found that 15- to 19-year-olds accounted for 56.7 percent of the Tommy John surgeries performed between 2007 and 2011, while 20- to 24-year-olds accounted for the second highest number of surgeries at 22.2 percent.

“This research should be a wakeup call for parents, coaches and players,” says Dr. Steven Chudik, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Ill. “The increase of Tommy John surgery in young athletes is alarming and is evidence of a larger societal issue with overuse in youth sports. It is a desperate call for moderation.”

Prior to 1974, no one had heard of Tommy John surgery, which is a reconstructive operation to the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) and is named after former Los Angeles Dodgers ace pitcher Tommy John. Since then, the surgery has become a well-known orthopedic procedure, and the number of Tommy John surgeries performed annually continues to increase.

This growing number of elbow surgeries is largely the result of increased throwing and overuse of the arm, says Dr. Chudik.

“Since the ’70s, research has continually demonstrated how pitch counts, pitch types and rest relate to player injury,” he says.

Another possible contributing factor to the increased frequency of elbow surgeries is that there is a misconception among young athletes that Tommy John surgery improves athletic performance. Earlier research reported to the AOSSM found that 51 percent of high school athletes believed that undergoing Tommy John surgery would improve performance, even if the UCL was uninjured.

“If pitchers can adhere to a strict schedule and pitch count, most overuse injuries can be eliminated,” says Dr. Chudik. “Tommy John surgery isn’t a means to an end for most athletes, especially amateur competitors, because of the recovery time and missed play. It can make sense for a professional athlete, like Tommy John, to be able to extend his professional career, but only for a limited time.”

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