Elbow surgery fast becoming an all-too-common dilemma in MLB

Overuse and bad mechanics by picthers making elbow surgery more prevalent in the MLB all the way down to the little leagues, writes Gregg Patton.
New York Mets’ Matt Harvey is the latest young pitcher to need surgery on his elbow. Jim McIsaac / Getty Images
New York Mets’ Matt Harvey is the latest young pitcher to need surgery on his elbow. Jim McIsaac / Getty Images

When news came that the brilliant young pitcher Matt Harvey of the New York Mets had torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow and faced likely reconstructive surgery, the reaction was predictable.

Such an unlucky turn for the right-hander, 24.

In fact, luck does not seem to have much to do with it. Fully one-third of all Major League Baseball pitchers have undergone the surgery, according to a July story by BleacherReport.com.

The specific number at that time was this: an astounding 124 of 360 MLB pitchers had their elbows rebuilt with healthy ligaments, usually taken from other parts of their own bodies, a procedure known in the US as "Tommy John" surgery, named after the first pitcher to have the operation, in 1974.

Harvey did not even have the sad moment to himself. Also last week, Colorado Rockies closer Rafael Betancourt announced his season was over, giving way to the surgery.

Neither does luck have anything to do with the reason so many pitchers now tear the same ligament.

Dr James Andrews, the orthopaedic surgeon most closely associated with repairing professional athletes' joints, is just one of many to study the injury and conclude that the UCL tears because of two things, usually in combination – poor throwing mechanics and overuse.

Andrews, who has characterised the injury as "epidemic", launched a national campaign earlier this year, mainly to get young athletes to give themselves a rest.

Nearly 40 per cent of his patients, reported Andrews, were now of high-school age.

"Specialisation leads to playing the sport year-round," Andrews told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "There's a sky-high increase in overuse injuries."

Despite pitch and innings limits placed on players – from Little League all the way to the majors – sports-medicine experts say that pitchers' arms need recovery time.

Then there is the stress of bad form, a hard thing to change.

"I've pitched this way my whole life," the Washington nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg told ESPN.com after he had surgery on his elbow two years ago. "I'm not going to try to reinvent the wheel."

The good news for pitchers is that the surgery can represent a relatively brief break in a professional career. Recovery time is about one year, and the fresh ligament often feels stronger than the old one, which may have been fraying for years.

Strasburg, Adam Wainwright, Anibal Sanchez, AJ Burnett, CJ Wilson, Francisco Liriano and Joe Nathan are among the pitchers to make strong returns since having the elbow surgery. Mets fans can take comfort knowing that Harvey likely will, one day, be as good as new, and luck won't have anything to do with that, either.


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Published: September 1, 2013 04:00 AM


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