Cutting edge medicine is by definition ahead of clinical studies. It takes a while for the mammoth research industry to catch up to new developments, and the science behind the veracity of claims in a sector may be years or decades behind the times.
PRP (platelet rich plasma) therapy generally falls in the category of cutting edge medicine. Although it’s been used in specific instances since the 1980s, it’s only been around in the public consciousness for just over a decade as of this writing. However, it’s showing some promising results indeed.
It’s rare to be able to describe a medical treatment option as both “high tech” and “fully natural.” But that’s the case with PRP injections, which first piqued the curiosity of elite athletes before it went mainstream.
Because PRP therapy relies on your own blood for the treatment, it’s very safe. And while everyone’s body is different and has a unique healing process, the mechanism behind that healing is very much the same.
As the name suggests, PRP relies on a patient’s platelets for the treatment. Blood is drawn from the patient and the platelets in the plasma are separated from red blood cells and white blood cells. The platelets are then concentrated to a level several times higher than that found naturally in the body.
Next, those platelets are reinjected with ultrasound guidance to an affected area like a sore elbow, arthritic knee, injured tendons, or other injured area. The growth factors in the PRP — complex proteins that send signals to the body — encourage the body to heal the injury.
Voilà: There you have PRP therapy in a nutshell. But just how effective is it according to clinical studies?
Follow along as we delve into the science that’s currently out there and probe what’s likely to come in the future.
Current Clinical Studies Supporting PRP Therapy
There is certainly some science behind PRP therapy, and we can expect much more in the near future as the treatment gains steam among the general public. Because sports medicine is where the treatment first had its breakthrough, many of the early studies focused on sports medicine.
The Tennis Elbow Study: Patience for Patients
One of the most significant studies behind PRP therapy was a study of 230 people suffering from tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylar tendinopathy if you want the technical term. The study itself is significant because of its size, since the majority of studies have been much smaller.
The most interesting takeaway of the study is the length of time patients responded positively to the treatment. At 12 weeks — 3 months — patients who had undergone PRP treatment only showed a minor improvement in pain compared to the control group. However, at 24 weeks — 6 months — the PRP treated group experienced significantly reduced pain compared to the control group.
The point here? The body’s natural healing process takes some time to produce results, especially in older patients. Anyone undergoing PRP therapy should know that the effects are not immediate and may take several months to have their fullest impact, as evidenced by this study.
But hey, let’s cut our bodies some slack. They work tirelessly to keep us alive. PRP helps the body heal naturally and leads toward a long-term improvement. No one grows from an infant to an adult overnight, either.
Hot Off the Presses: German Doctors Endorse PRP
A recent working study came from the mouthful-of-a-name German “Working Group for Clinical Tissue Regeneration” of the German Society of Orthopaedics and Traumatology. We won’t make you recall or repeat that whole phrase, so we’ll simply refer to them as German specialists.
This report, released in September 2020, surveyed German specialists and led to some very positive results for PRP. Although the report notes that PRP is still hotly debated, the overwhelming majority — 89% — of specialists surveyed stated that PRP therapy was useful, and 90% said it would become more important in the future. This is what “cutting edge” looks like.
The most common endorsements for PRP therapy from the specialists were tendon problems and osteoarthritis, with the majority supporting the treatment for these conditions. PRP for muscle injuries and cartilage damage were endorsed by about half of those surveyed.
Like many current studies, the report called for deeper insight into PRP and more studies. That’s where your pain specialist comes in: Rather than rely on standardized processes, the specialist can help custom tailor your treatment to your own needs.
PRP for Knees: Get It In Early
Another recent study examined the effects of PRP therapy compared to hyaluronic acid — a common substance naturally produced by your body that helps keep soft tissue hydrated. It’s commonly used in beauty products, for example, because of its ability to bind to water and improve the appearance of skin.
While both PRP therapy and hyaluronic acid were shown to be valuable for treating knee osteoarthritis, there was one key nugget of information that stood out. Multiple injections of PRP — three in this case — were shown to have significant benefits to early knee osteoarthritis. Multiple injections did not seem to have as big an effect on advanced osteoarthritis, for comparison.
This means if you’re in the early stages of knee osteoarthritis you may have the opportunity to nip the problem in the bud. Knee problems can be debilitating if left untreated for too long, and, well, your knees are a fairly important part of your body.
PRP and Pro Athletes: Elite Healing
If you heard of PRP around a decade ago and you weren’t in the medical community, you likely heard of it via sports news. Several prominent athletes, including golf guru Tiger Woods, tennis titan Rafael Nadal, and gridiron greats Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu all received PRP treatments around that time to much media hoopla.
A brief bit of editorializing: Maybe it’s the word “plasma” that gives off such a high-tech feel. Plasma screen TVs are high-tech, after all, and are very much in the popular vernacular. Blood plasma is in fact quite prosaic, as even the lowliest animal has it, but the very nature of the word is alluring.
Rafael Nadal was the most forthcoming of the swath of athletes who received treatment around that time, when platelet rich plasma therapy still sounded like something out of Star Trek to many.
Speaking before the Shanghai Masters in 2010, Nadal described his previous encounters with PRP. He described having PRP treatment on the top of his knee, and that it “worked unbelievable.” He noted that he recovered 100 percent in a very short time after the treatment, though it wasn’t as effective on his subsequent injury.
That elite athletes were privy to PRP long before the general public is no surprise: After all, there are millions of dollars at stake when it comes to how well their joints work. And although it’s quite likely no one is paying you to go jogging or play tennis, your joints still matter to you — and they matter to your doctor.
Is PRP Right for You?
If you think you’re a prime candidate for PRP, call 650-667-2322 to set up a consultation with Apex Pain and Wellness. The consultation is covered by insurance and you may learn that the treatment is a valuable option for you. See how good it feels to feel good again.