A Promising Treatment for Athletes, in Blood
Two of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ biggest stars, Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu, used their own blood in an innovative injury treatment before winning the Super Bowl. At least one major league pitcher, about 20 professional soccer players and perhaps hundreds of recreational athletes have also undergone the procedure, commonly called platelet-rich plasma therapy.
Experts in sports medicine say that if the technique’s early promise is fulfilled, it could eventually improve the treatment of stubborn injuries like tennis elbow and knee tendinitis for athletes of all types.
The method, which is strikingly straightforward and easy to perform, centers on injecting portions of a patient’s blood directly into the injured area, which catalyzes the body’s instincts to repair muscle, bone and other tissue. Most enticing, many doctors said, is that the technique appears to help regenerate ligament and tendon fibers, which could shorten rehabilitation time and possibly obviate surgery.
Research into the effects of platelet-rich plasma therapy has accelerated in recent months, with most doctors cautioning that more rigorous studies are necessary before the therapy can emerge as scientifically proven. But many researchers suspect that the procedure could become an increasingly attractive course of treatment for reasons medical and financial.
“It’s a better option for problems that don’t have a great solution — it’s nonsurgical and uses the body’s own cells to help it heal,” said Dr. Allan Mishra, an assistant professor of orthopedics at Stanford University Medical Center and one of the primary researchers in the field. “I think it’s fair to say that platelet-rich plasma has the potential to revolutionize not just sports medicine but all of orthopedics. It needs a lot more study, but we are obligated to pursue this.”
Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ team physician, used platelet-rich plasma therapy in July on a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in the throwing elbow of pitcher Takashi Saito. Surgery would have ended Mr. Saito’s season and shelved him for about 10 to 14 months; he instead returned to pitch in the September pennant race without pain.
Dr. ElAttrache said he could not be certain that the procedure caused the pitcher’s recovery — about 25 percent of such cases heal on their own, he said — but it was another encouraging sign for the nascent technique, which doctors in the field said could help not just injuries to professional athletes but the tendinitis and similar ailments found in the general population.
“For the last several decades, we’ve been working on the mechanical effects of healing — the strongest suture constructs, can we put strong anchors in?” Dr. ElAttrache said. “But we’ve never been able to modulate the biology of healing. This is addressing that issue. It deserves a lot more study before we can say that it works with proper definitiveness. The word I would use is promising.”