Perhaps the most famous sports event that brought the medical acronym “PRP” into the media spotlight was the 2009 Super Bowl. Just weeks after suffering a sprained medial collateral ligament, Pittsburgh Steelers’ Hines Ward returned to the field just in time to play a key role in the team’s win against the Arizona Cardinals.
The wide receiver’s rapid recovery and winning performance raised questions about the treatment he’d undergone for his knee injury: a little known therapy called platelet-rich plasma therapy or PRP. The method involves concentrating the platelets in a patient’s blood sample and re-injecting them into the injured area to boost the body’s own healing powers.
It’s been around since the seventies but more recently stirred a buzz in the sports medicine world as other high profile athletes – including the likes of Tiger Woods and Mariners’ pitcher Cliff Lee – have used it to help speed healing of muscle injuries.
But the jury is still out on PRP and for good reason – there is little scientific evidence that shows it actually works. Its popularity has moved faster than the research. The American Journal of Sports Medicine once even warned that the method had “elevated to the level of platelet-rich panacea.”
In fact, PRP research is so ambiguous that most insurance doesn’t even cover it. Shots can cost anywhere from $800 to more than $1,200 each. But does it live up to its high price tag?
We don’t know but we hope to get closer to finding out.
We are currently researching how PRP specifically affects tennis elbow (or lateral epicondylitis), a painful condition often resulting from degeneration and damage in the forearm muscles and tendons. It can be caused by overuse or sports-related repetitive strain.
Our research will compare PRP outcomes to other, less costly forms of treatment to see whether it actually works better. We will compare it to the effects of physical therapy alone as well as physical therapy combined with dry needle tendon fenestration (needling the tendon to make it bleed and to induce healing).
Unlike some other clinical trials that have tackled PRP, ours is a blind study, which means participants don’t know which arm of the study they’re in. This prevents false positive experiences based on the placebo effect.
We are hopeful that our work will get us closer to answering more questions about PRP therapy. If PRP is in fact the silver bullet some athletes have claimed it to be for healing sports injuries, perhaps the high cost and growing industry associated with the treatment is warranted. If this were the case, we would encourage exploring ways to make it more affordable.
However, if research like ours points to the conclusion that there’s little difference between the impact of PRP and alternative methods of therapy, physicians in the U.S. must begin to back away from offering a pricey procedure that lacks scientific support.
Take the next steps:
- See more details about Dr. Jacobson’s study.
- Read the story on the UMHS newsroom page.
- Read about the U-M departments collaborating on this research, including Radiology, Orthopaedic Surgery, and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
Jon Jacobson, M.D., is the U-M Musculoskeletal Division Director and professor in the Department of Radiology at the U-M Medical School. His research interests include MRI, ultrasound, and imaging-guided procedures.
The U-M Health System Department of Radiology is one of the top radiology departments in the country, serving one of the nation’s finest medical centers.