It’s working for Olympians and star athletes — could PRP help you?

Date Published: 
January 24, 2014

The Sochi Winter Olympics are upon us, and I am psyched. Like so many of you, I really enjoy watching the competition and rooting for Team USA.

We’ve already seen Team USA lose one of the giants in skiing — Lindsey Vonn — due to a terrible fall. Preparing for these games gives way too many stories of Olympic dreams lost or delayed due to injury. In recent years, there’s been growing interest in a new treatment that could have a profound impact on you.

USA Men’s Basketball Team Gold Medalist Kobe Bryant, 12-time Olympic swimming medalist Dana Torres and many others, along with athletes including Tiger Woods, Pittsburgh Steelers Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu, and tennis great Maria Sharapova are among a host of other athletes who swear by it.

The “it” is platelet rich plasma therapy, or PRP, a non-invasive treatment that has been around since the mid-1990s. It reportedly relieves pain by promoting long-lasting healing and has gained prominence because of the ever-growing list of problems it is being used to treat today.

It’s being used by numerous doctors to treat patients with osteoarthritis of the knee, shoulder, hip and spine, rotator cuff tears, chronic plantar fasciitis, anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries, pelvic pain and instability, tennis elbow, ankle sprains, back and knee injuries, neck injuries, joint pain and tendonitis. It is also being used in cardiothoracic surgery, dentistry and plastic surgery.

So, how does it work, does it work and is it really safe?

The body’s first response to soft-tissue injury is to deliver platelet cells. They’re immune cells that are loaded with growth and healing factors and initiate repair, as well as drawing the crucial assistance of stem cells.

Supporters of PRP therapy say it draws on this natural healing process and intensifies the body’s efforts to heal by delivering a higher concentration of platelets. They explain that growth factors stimulate recovery by increasing blood flow, causing cartilage to become firmer and stronger and increasing collagen production to repair tendons, ligaments, cartilage and muscles.

In general, the best way to describe it is to think of it as a sort of jumpstart for healing that significantly strengthens the body’s natural healing processes.

PRP treatments are often used to treat healing and pain problems that have not responded to standard treatment approaches. The PRP treatment is performed in a doctor’s office and can take from one to two hours, including preparation and recovery time, depending on the nature of the problem being treated.

The process begins with a doctor taking a blood sample from the person to be treated and putting it in a centrifuge to separate the platelet-rich plasma from the other components in blood. The doctor then injects the concentrated platelet-rich plasma into the site where the injury or problem exists, to guide the platelets to where they are needed, maximizing the benefits to the targeted healing process.

Doctors who offer PRP treatment state that PRP relieves pain and promotes healing without the risks typically associated with surgery or general anesthesia. There are no hospital stays and no prolonged recovery periods with PRP. They report that most people are back on their feet, resuming their normal activities and work schedules, right after the procedure.

Some doctors, however, have challenged the effectiveness of PRP, and it’s not without controversy. There are studies both for and against the treatment. Some claim that platelet rich plasma therapy is no more effective than a placebo for certain injuries. There are, however, a growing number of reports that point to research evidence that the results are measurable.

In July of last year, researchers from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine presented their findings at the organization’s annual meeting. They presented evidence that PRP is safe and effective for treating a number of sports injuries, including cartilage tears.

Questions won’t quickly be resolved. There are issues as to what is the most effective method for preparing PRP. There are also different types of PRP involving the addition of growth factors.

Some doctors are concerned that U.S. regulations for PRP and other biological therapies are very vague. It’s also important that you know that, thus far, insurance companies aren’t covering these treatments. The cost of it generally runs from $1,000 to $2,000.

It’s hard to sort all this out, but here’s what you can take away. Doctors generally report that they believe this isn’t some passing fad. It’s being seen as cutting-edge, and it’s likely that there will be a growing body of knowledge as doctors and researchers continue to explore PRP uses and effective applications.

Until then, you need to be an educated consumer. Do some research. Look at studies both for and against and ask questions. Get a second opinion before making a final decision, and look for a track record. Ask to speak to other patients who have had treatment for the same problem you are experiencing.

Just because it’s new, there’s no reason to discount a treatment, but understanding all the information and applying that information to your specific problem is very important. We’ll see how our friends in Sochi fare. Let’s hear it for Team USA!

Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be-reached by calling (302) 537-7260.