How Stem Cells Have Been used in Pro Athletes

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Injuries can be devastating for professional athletes. Long recovery times can negatively impact their careers and cause significant personal stress. In addition, chronic conditions may lead to chronic pain and disability and adversely impact quality of life. Given their desire for continuing to participate in sports, athletes are often some of the most motivated orthopedic patients. It is therefore not particularly surprising that athletes may be among the first to try innovative new treatments with the possibility of returning them to their sports quickly and safely. 

Many of the injuries that athletes experience – including damage to bones, muscles, joints, and tendons – have conventionally been treated with interventions associated with limited effectiveness, significant risk, or long recovery times. For instance, rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often suboptimal. Promising research into the use of stem cells for orthopedic conditions thus has the potential to fulfill an unmet need.

Several professional athletes have undertaken stem cell treatments, with many of these athletes belonging to the National Football League or Major League Baseball teams. These athletes have sought help for a variety of conditions involving tendons, muscles, joints, and cartilage. They have undertaken treatments to areas that include: knees, feet, ankles, neck, triceps, ACL and Achilles tendon.  The idea behind these treatments is that by introducing stem cells to damaged tissue, the tissue may be regenerated as the cells take on the properties and functions of healthy cells normally located in the area where damage has occurred.

While much of the evidence regarding the impact of stem cells on professional athletes’ recovery is anecdotal, researchers are also beginning to develop systematic studies to evaluate how successful these procedures are. One such study recently investigated the impact of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) on ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) injuries, which are common in professional baseball, especially among pitchers.

The scientists assessed 34 athletes who had suffered partial-thickness UCL tears, which had been diagnosed through the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Each of the athletes had tried treatments that did not involve surgery for 2 months or longer and had not been able to return to play. The athletes were given single injections of PRP into the UCL with the use of ultrasound guidance and subsequently underwent physical therapy before returning to their sports.

The researchers found that 30 of the 34 athletes, or 88% of them, were able to return to their sports. The average time to return was 12 weeks, with some athletes returning as early as 10 weeks later and others needing 15 weeks. Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinical Shoulder and Elbow (KJOC) and Disabilities of the Arm Shoulder and Hand (DASH) scores improved on average in these athletes after treatment as well. In addition to these measures of pain, researchers looked at the medial elbow joint space opening and saw that the treatment had decreased the space, suggesting successful regeneration of tissue. 

While athletes have undergone several types of stem cell and platelet-rich plasma treatments for their injuries, the medical community is still working to collect data to show how these types of treatments may help these athletes return to their sports. Stem cells do not represent a magic treatment and are not likely to work in every circumstance. However, with more research, we will be able to better understand when and how this type of treatment is appropriate and useful.