As the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Tigers prepare to face each other in the World Series, starting tonight, we’re taking the opportunity to look at baseball medicine. There are some injuries that are particularly common among baseball players, and some treatments that are particularly frequent within the sport.
For example, in 1974, Yankees pitcher Tommy John underwent a procedure to repair a ligament in his elbow. Now known as Tommy John surgery, the operation was controversial, with some fans and commentators feeling it gave him an unfair advantage. Though John’s performance did improve, it is generally believed that the apparent improvement was simply John and others getting the surgery returning to their previous levels of ability—the operation didn’t make those pitchers better than they had ever been, only better than in the months or years right before the surgery.
Thirty-six years later, similar controversy attended a procedure performed on pitcher Bartolo Colón. Colón, now with the Oakland A’s, had stopped playing early in the 2009 season due to rotator cuff damage and shoulder pain. In March 2010, he received a stem-cell transplant to repair the damage, with the approval of baseball officials. The procedure seemed to rejuvenate his arm when he returned to the field, playing for the Yankees in 2011.
When players have shoulder injuries, it is important not only to treat the injury but to minimize recovery time. Modern athletes have rigorous training schedules, and often can’t spare the weeks or months it might take to fully recover—the long stretches of enforced idleness mean athletes are comparatively out of shape and need to work to get back into pre-injury condition.
Now some injuries can be treated with a new technique that can cut recovery time in half. With the surgery, tears in the cartilage lining the shoulder joint—a common injury for athletes who make overhand motions—are treated by adjusting the structure of the arm musculature so that the injured area is placed under less strain.