Elbow surgery for teens

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg
July 30, 2008 3:44:01 PM PDT
With the Major League Baseball All-Star game just past, a lot of young ballplayers are anxious to perform like their idols. Unfortuannately, more and more are becoming injured. For one young pitcher being scouted by the pros, an elbow injury nearly struck out his career. But surgery is getting him back on the mound.Sixteen-year-old Jonathan Lucas has been pitching a baseball since kindergarten. But four years ago, at age 12, one pitch gave him a hard time.

"I just felt a burning numbness down my arm," he said. "I had trouble contracting my arm, and I couldn't really squeeze anything, numbness, just a painful feeling."

Jon had just torn a major ligament holding his elbow together. Fortunately, there is surgery to repair the tear. It is a common problem for players who are big for their age.

"Increased force on the elbow leads to greater injury," said Dr. David Altchek, of the Hospital for Special Surgery. "The harder you throw, the more likely you are to get injured. The bigger you are, the more velocity you can generate, probably the more likely you're going to get injured."

They are disturbing injuries. More and more young players are showing up for surgery. It may be that coaches are pushing them too hard without enough rest.

When a pitcher throws a ball, he winds up his body like a top. When he releases the energy, it flows through his body to his shoulder, and the last joint to bears the brunt of the energy is the elbow, where a major ligament can tear.

Dr. Altchek repaired the tear with a wrist tendon graft he used to reinforce the ligament, creating a double-ply repair. Rehab should get Jon on the pitching mound again.

"The last study we did, on 100 consecutive of these operations, we got 93 percent of the pitchers back to the same level or above," Dr. Altchek said. "So odds are good that he's going to come back."

Jon's brace will come off in a couple of weeks, and in four months, he'll be throwing again. It will take at least a year before he'll be back to his pre-injury form. Both he and Dr. Altchek agree that counting the number of pitches he throws in one game and getting adequate rest between games is crucial to keeping his career on track.


STORY BY: Dr. Jay Adlersberg