Platelet-Rich Plasma – PRP – often pops up in sports injury news headlines. From what we read, plasma-rich platelet injections are often a well-publicized factor in professional athletes’ treatment and recovery.
These stories stir the imagination of the public at large. If PRP treatment works for our sports heroes, will it work for our own injuries?
The answers to these questions and others are not clear at this point. Doctors are currently using PRP treatments to accelerate the healing process of soft tissues. But it is a therapy still very much in the early stages of development.
Tiger Woods was one of this therapy’s early adopters. We’ll use his example as a starting point in answering “what is PRP therapy.”
Tiger Woods’ Knee Issues
In 2008, Tiger had two major knee surgeries within a span of 10 weeks. The first happened in April of that year when he finished second in the Masters Golf Tournament. Two days later, he had arthroscopic surgery to remove cartilage damage in his left knee.
Shortly after, Tiger competed in the 2008 U.S. Open in June. He played with a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), an injury that dated back to just after the 2007 British Open. He also had leg stress fractures.
Despite those physical challenges, Tiger still won the tournament. But sports commentators at the time noted how much in agony Tiger looked as he hobbled to victory.
Nine days after that U.S. Open victory, Tiger had reconstructive surgery to repair the ACL in his left knee. However, the post-surgery recovery was slower than he had hoped. He was impatient and wanted to get to play again more quickly. So, he looked for a way to accelerate his healing process.
He turned to PRP, then a not widely known therapy. He received 4 PRP injections to his knee ligament. Tiger has since publicly commented that he believes the treatments were vital for his timely return to competitive golf.
What Is PRP Therapy?
In the years since Tiger placed his faith in PRP, this therapy has evolved and improved dramatically. The answers to what it is begin by reviewing some fundamental basics.
Plasma. Plasma is the liquid portion of your whole blood. It includes water and proteins. It allows red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets to circulate through your body.
Platelets. Platelets, or thrombocytes, are small, colorless cell fragments. When you cut yourself, platelets help blood clot so that you stop bleeding. They also are critical to your body’s natural healing processes.
PRP. PRP stands for platelet-rich plasma. The PRP procedure starts with your doctor drawing your blood. They then process the blood in a centrifuge to separate and concentrate your platelets.
PRP Therapy. PRP therapy involves injecting platelet-rich plasma into injured tendons, ligaments, muscles, or joints to accelerate healing. This injection focuses the natural healing components of platelets on the injury. It enables your doctor to direct biological healing processes where they are most needed.
What is Platelet-Rich Plasma Used For?
Clinical studies have shown that platelet-rich plasma stimulates and improves the healing process. It is not a magical cure, but it does have a role in minimizing pain and improving function. For those who respond to PRP injections, it can reliably decrease inflammation and promote healing.
Platelet-rich plasma therapy may be appropriate to treat knee, elbow, shoulder, and hip osteoarthritis. It may also help with many overuse sports injuries. It is not suitable for all conditions, however.
Doctors are using PRP procedures for soft tissue injuries where there is a firm scientific rationale and sound medical evidence.
Prospective patients, however, also need to have realistic expectations. For example, platelet-rich plasma injections will not heal a rotator cuff tear without surgery. However, PRP can accelerate recovery after this kind of surgical repair.
If successful, a PRP injection generally results in long-lasting relief compared to a cortisone shot. PRP therapy stimulates injured soft tissue to heal or repair itself. In contrast, cortisone injections relieve inflammation pain without directly promoting any healing or soft-tissue repair.
PRP is a promising therapy for soft tissue repair. However, there have yet to be any clear standards that have been established for different available treatments.
There are both beneficial PRP treatments available as well as cases where marketing has gotten ahead of the science. Patients should recognize that it is a procedure still under clinical development.
Medical insurance typically does not cover PRP. The out-of-pocket costs for similar procedures can vary widely across different medical providers.
That all being said, legitimate research on PRP at some of the nation’s top medical institutions is leading to significant progress. PRP is an alternative to consider for accelerated musculoskeletal soft tissue injury recovery by patients who have done adequate due diligence.