Success rate for Tommy John surgery good for Braves

Cox NewspapersJune 6, 2013 

ATLANTA -- The way Braves left-hander Alex Wood figures, doctors have pretty much licked this reconstructive elbow surgery thing for baseball players.

"It's about as close to perfected as you can get," said Wood, who had the procedure at the end of his senior year of high school and made his big-league debut last week. "Really the only question these days is when stuff happens with your shoulders. I am sure one day somebody will probably find an answer (to that), and they will become very wealthy. They've got one of two (figured out) so now searching for that other one."

Wood's attitude is the prevalent one among baseball players when it comes to ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery.

The success rate in recent years among pitchers who have had the procedure, which is better known as Tommy John surgery, is about 85 percent. Players are confident they can come back if they follow what generally is a 12- to 16-month rehabilitation plan.

That's the silver lining for the Braves, who have two pitchers on the disabled list after Tommy John surgery last month (Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters) and another close to returning (Brandon Beachy). Four pitchers on the staff have made successful comebacks from the procedure: Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Venters and Wood.

"Fortunately, the success rate is really, really improved over the years," Hudson said. "They pretty much have it down to a science. Even though it stinks and you don't want to deal with it, there's a really, really good chance you are going to come back as good, if not better."

We talked to the four Braves who made comebacks from Tommy John surgery about their injury, the rehabilitation, when they felt like they were back to normal and what advice they offer to other players who have the surgery.

Tim Hudson

Date of surgery: Aug. 8, 2008 (32 years old)

Date of return: Sept. 1, 2009

Since surgery: 55-31, 3.37 ERA in 114 starts

The injury: "It was obviously frustrating (to have his first major arm issue). It's something you never want to encounter. But, unfortunately, if you play this game long enough, it's something that you are going to come across. If you pitch long enough and log enough innings, it's going to be in the cards for you."

The rehab: "Baseball players are generally some very ADHD people and don't really enjoy sitting and twiddling your thumbs and lifting a two-pound weight for eight months. You have to grind it out, there's no question about it. At the same time there are steps along the way that are very rewarding that you reach a certain spot in the process and you realize, 'That was a pretty big hurdle right there that I jumped over. Check that off the list.'"

The comeback: "I came back and pitched at 13 months, but didn't feel like I was right. Everything was good, the velocity and everything is good, but I just didn't feel like it was … it just felt like I had surgery, you know what I mean? Everything was coming out good, and it was responding well the next day, but it wasn't until the next spring when I showed up to spring training, and it was awesome."

The advice: "Just patience, man, and listen to your body. If you feel like you need a day or two days or a week (rest) along the process, taking a week in the whole scheme of things is nothing when you are looking at a year-long process. If you are trying to push through something that your body is obviously telling you to back off, that could set you back for six to eight weeks."

Kris Medlen

Date of surgery: Aug. 18, 2010 (24 years old)

Date of return: Sept. 25, 2011

Since surgery: 12-7, 2.09 ERA in 64 appearances with 24 starts

The injury: "Once I was on the mound and I felt my arm go, I kind of knew I was going to have to get it. Actually getting it, I was pretty nervous about it. I had never had any kind of surgery before, but once it's done, it's one of those things you move on from it."

The rehab: "It's physical, not being able to throw, but the entire thing was more mental, just the mental grind of rehab. It's monotonous every day, the same thing, it just wears on you. Once you understand the mental grind of it, it helps you out."

The comeback: "I didn't feel 'normal' normal until about halfway through last year."

The advice: "Just stay focused. It obviously feels like it's going to take a long time, but it flies by because the more work you put in, the more you get out of it."

Jonny Venters

Date of surgery: September 2005 (20 years old)

Date of return: April 2007 while in the minors; made major-league debut April 17, 2010.

Since surgery: 15-10, 2.23 ERA in 230 games in majors

The injury: "The process of once your arm is bothering you, and you are hurt, to getting surgery can be stressful because you kind of don't know what's going to happen. Then when once they decide it's time to get it done, it happens quick. You go down there, they look at you, and the next day you get the surgery."

The rehab: "It's a long process. You have got to do what your therapist and doctor says. It's very repetitive. You go through stages where you get bored doing the same stuff every day. But it's stuff you need to do. There's part that are good, (like) when you can start throwing."

The comeback: "When I came back the first time I wasn't throwing very hard and I was sore. After that, I felt good. A couple years later, I felt normal. (There was) no pain in my elbow, and it really wasn't a thought in my mind, really."

The advice: "Be patient. Do everything you can that they can let you do, and don't push it. Be confident and you will be fine."

Alex Wood

Date of surgery: June 2009 (18 years old)

Date of return: April 14, 2010, at University of Georgia; made major-league debut May 30

Since surgery: 8-5, 1.72 ERA in 23 minor-league starts

The injury: "Some guys, it's kind of a gradual thing where they tear something and end up pitching. Mine was I just went out and threw one pitch, felt it pop, and I told my catcher, 'I think I just tore my (elbow ligament).' I didn't throw another pitch after that."

The rehab: "My trainer, (UGA's) Mike Dillon, he's awesome. I owe him a lot for the rehab he did with me. It was seven days a week just getting after it. That was a long process, but it ended up working out pretty good. I actually threw at 9 1/2 months (after surgery). It was tough because after about two months you feel like you are ready to do more stuff. You have to wait forever until you can do it."

The comeback: "After you have that one long break, that two-month break in the offseason for the first time. When I came back, that was when I really started to feel I was back. I had everything in command and not thinking about it."

The advice: "Just know that it's got a good success rate. Find you a physical therapist and commit to the work and not get too excited or antsy about getting back as fast as you can. Just take the steady path and focus on the recovery and timetable your therapist laid out for you so you don't have any setbacks. Your first season back you are not going to be back to where you were before."

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