SBJ/April 23-29, 2012/In-Depth

Players go overseas to test new treatments

There is no magic cure for athletes slowed by age and injury, but some players are heading overseas looking for a medicinal fountain of youth.

The current rage surrounding overseas medical procedures revolves around a procedure called platelet-rich plasma therapy, or PRP. It is a relatively simple, yet scientifically unproven, treatment for pre-arthritic joint and other tendon injuries.

One variation of PRP, called Orthokine, is offered by a clinic in Dusseldorf, Germany, that has attracted superstar patients such as Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees.

But while PRP is seen as an emerging option for athletes to speed the healing process, other procedures such as stem cell treatments also have sent high-profile athletes overseas in search of a cure-all.

Kobe Bryant is among those athletes who have gone overseas for plasma therapy.
Photo by: NBAE / Getty Images
Consider that Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning last season reportedly traveled to Europe for stem cell treatment on his injured neck for a procedure that is not approved in the United States.

“These guys that have problems are trying anything they can do to keep playing and extend their careers,” said Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon and director of sports medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina.

There is nothing clinically sinister about Orthokine and other PRP procedures that use a patient’s own blood and involve no banned substances. The Yankees and the Lakers did not prevent the Orthokine treatments for their star players, but physicians familiar with the procedure say that despite the number of clinical trials and anecdotal promise, there still is no scientific proof of the long-term effectiveness of the procedures.

“There is very little clinical evidence to support the widespread use that [PRP] is currently enjoying,” said Dr. William Levine, director of sports medicine at Columbia University, where the school is currently testing the treatment. “We have to be very cautious. The bottom line is that it is still in the investigation stage in figuring out how to get [the PRP] delivered to the [injury] site.”

The procedure is based on taking blood from the injured player and spinning it to separate blood cells in order to isolate the platelets that promote healing. Those healthy platelets are then injected into the injured area to promote faster healing and prevent damage to the injured joint or torn tendon. Cost estimates for the treatment were not available.

Levine said that team physicians are well aware of the procedure and notes that Yankee team physicians did not stand in the way of the treatment given to Rodriguez.

Demand for the procedure is expected to only increase as the blood-spinning treatment gains more notice.
“From weekend warriors to elite athletes, people are asking for it,” Levine said.

Geier said he sees little risk associated with the PRP treatment, but he also isn’t convinced that it does much to improve injuries.

“In theory, we are hopeful that this is a breakthrough, but the problem is that the random studies have been disappointing and many show little benefit,” he said. “We don’t know the right doses to inject and there are a lot of variables that are hard to control with it. There is a lot of caution, but there is potential here.”

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