Frank A. Pettrone, MD
For Alyson, it was déjà vu all over again. The 20-year-old George Mason University (GMU) volleyball player was going for a ball when a teammate cut it off, played it, and fell onto Alyson’s outstretched arm. The force of the fall injured the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in her elbow – the ligament that holds the upper and lower arm bones together. Just 10 months earlier, Alyson had suffered the same, though milder, injury in the same circumstances. Rehabilitation let her return to volleyball, but this time, she knew it was much worse. “The pain was so intense I thought I might have broken my arm,” she recalls. After X-rays showed that nothing was broken, Alyson consulted OrthoVirginia surgeon Frank Pettrone, MD, GMU’s long-time head team physician. He ordered an MRI, which confirmed a complete tear of her UCL. And he gave her some surprising news: she would need Tommy John surgery to repair the ligament.
Most people associate Tommy John surgery with baseball. And indeed, the vast majority of athletes who undergo the procedure are pitchers. It was named for Major League Baseball pitcher Tommy John, who was first to have the operation in 1974. During Tommy John surgery, the surgeon takes a healthy tendon from elsewhere in the body (the forearm or sometimes the leg) to replace the torn UCL. The healthy tendon is threaded through holes drilled into the bone above and below the elbow. The technique is one of the major advancements in sports medicine in the last quarter century and typically yields excellent results.
But Tommy John surgery is not just for pitchers anymore. Today, it’s increasingly common among a wide range of young athletes, including wrestlers, javelin throwers and volleyball players like Alyson.
Three days after her diagnosis, Alyson underwent outpatient surgery to repair her UCL. She spent the first two weeks in a splint and sling, followed by a month in a brace to allow a controlled range of motion for the elbow. She began physical therapy six weeks post-surgery, focusing first on restoring grip strength to her hand. She continued to increase her mobility until the brace was finally unlocked and she was able to work toward full range of motion. With a goal to play in all of her spring tournaments, she accelerated the rehab process and returned to the volleyball court just seven months after her surgery.
Now living in New Jersey and working for a large pharmaceutical company, Alyson has retired from competitive volleyball. She credits Dr. Pettrone with providing the support she needed to undergo surgery, attack her rehabilitation head on, and return to the volleyball court quickly and safely. And she has some words of advice for her fellow athletes. “With an injury like this, it’s not the physical pain that’s discouraging, it’s the mental side of it,” she says. “It’s hard not being with the team and being so dependent on other people to do even the simplest things for you. And when you hear it’s a six- to eight-month recovery – it seems like an eternity. But once you come to terms with it mentally and switch your mind set, those months fly by.”