Tommy John Surgery

By Kris Benson, Baltimore Orioles pitcher

This article present's former big league pitcher Kris Benson's experience with Tommy John surgery from his perspective in 2001, just after he had it.

Tommy John Surgery, named after the first pitcher in baseball to have it performed, is officially called Ulnar Collateral Ligament replacement or reconstruction surgery. It happens in the elbow. The basic procedure is to replace the failed ligament with a tendon taken from elsewhere in the body... the other arm or the hamstring of the leg are common sources. The tendon must change its behavior and function as a ligament. There are actually a number of UCL segments around the elbow (the animation highlights each of them in turn). Assuming you aren't asking because you plan on being the surgeon, we'll spare the technical details which involve cutting and drilling.

“The rehabilitation program following Tommy John surgery requires an inordinate amount of time and patience on the part of the athlete. The surgery requires extensive reconstruction by the orthopedic surgeon and it takes up to 1 year before a pitcher is able to comfortably and safely pitch without risk of injury to the reconstructed ligament."

"Perseverance, patience, and a strong work ethic are required for a pitcher to return to competition following this procedure. The stresses placed on the elbow are so extreme that it requires a protracted period of time for healing. This surgery has proven to be successful as long as the pitcher is compliant with his program and follows specific guidelines outlined by his trainer/therapist/surgeon.”

—Steve Hoffman PT, ATC, SCS - Board Certified Sports Physical Therapist

Before the surgery I was a “head case.” I had never experienced any arm problems before, so I really didn’t know what to expect or do. Not knowing what was wrong was the worst thing about it. Unlike some players that can’t even throw because the problem was so obvious, mine just nagged on and on.

I fought the idea of having surgery, but the more I thought about it, the more I knew I had to go through with it. The whole time, I believed that I could come back from this surgery better than before. Then again, I couldn’t even remember how it felt the last time I was 100 percent. I sought out the successful Dr. James Andrews, the world-renowned expert on this particular reconstructive elbow surgery. My good friend Dr. Joe Chandler, from the Atlanta Braves, drove to Birmingham, Alabama to oversee the surgery.

The surgery went off without a hitch. By Dr. Chandler’s account, it was one of the best ones he had ever seen. That’s always nice to hear after you come out of a surgery when your career is on the line.

I started rehab only five days after I left the hospital. The toughest part was getting my flexion back and touching my shoulder, mainly because they had shaved a small bone chip off the back of my elbow. Everything soon returned to normal though, and I was back to lifting weights again. My first day of throwing was a little awkward, to say the least, but I was pumped to finally start throwing again. The one thing that I always told myself is “the surgery is over, so don’t be afraid and don’t be scared to let it go.” After a week, I had my arm slot and release point back, and about a month later my throwing strength returned too. Now I’m throwing off the mound, my next great comeback moment. Man, did it feel awesome to get back on top. It took a few times, and a few days of backaches, but the strikes came back quickly too. Breaking ball will be coming up soon; however, my mind’s already set for that first game!

It’s finally time! All the batting practices and multiple bullpens are now over – it’s game time!!! Although I was only throwing three innings, I was still so excited it didn’t matter if it was one pitch. Everything went great and that was the way it went for the remainder of Spring Training. I was able to build my pitch count up to sixty-five pitches and five innings by the break of camp. My arm still needs regular maintenance, which consists of electric stem, ultrasound, hot/cold whirlpool sessions, massage and ice packs. Regular stretching, throwing routines and weight exercises are also a big part of every day.

In Nashville I was able to taste my first real competition in over a year. Little things popped up that didn’t even have to do with my surgery though. I had some tightness and soreness all over my forearm, but in different spots every week or so. Since I kept my shoulder strong I never really had a problem there, but I did have some lower triceps problems. I guess it all needs to just work its way out over time. My outings were very consistent at this level, and already I can see the experience I’ve received at the major league level help me in a level I first struggled at. Triple-A this time was more a positive experience than a disappointment.

By the time I finally got called back to the big leagues and got the ball for the first game, it had been eighteen months since my last Major League start. However, it had only been eleven and a half months since the surgery. I met my goal of making it back before the one-year anniversary, so in my mind it was quick. Every few weeks I’ve eliminated treatments out of my routines because my arm is feeling better and better. Although my starts have been less than stellar and inconsistent, I’m very pleased with my progress. Plus, I’m just happy to be back in action!

Additional Readings

 

Kris Benson has been a starting pitcher for more than 7 years in the big leagues, most recently with the Baltimore Orioles.


 

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