By Nancy Shute
If you’ve Googled tennis elbow or plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendon pain you’ve almost certainly come across platelet-rich plasma, a treatment that uses a person’s own blood to create an injection intended to speed healing.
You’ve also probably come across names like Kobe Bryant, Maria Sharapova, Rafael Nadal and Alex Rodriguez, pro athletes who supposedly have availed themselves of the treatment.
But just because Sharapova tried it and roared back to win the French Open doesn’t mean it works. Thousands of studies have been done on PRP, but doctors say they’re still not sure whether it helps with chronic or acute injuries.
The most recent bit of confusion came Wednesday, when French researchers presented a study at a conference in Paris. They gave 44 people with tennis elbow, a painful tendon irritation, two injections four weeks apart. Half the people got injections of PRP, half got injections of saline. Most people were pain-free after a year, but the people who got PRP did no better than people who got saltwater.
OK, I’m confused.
“Welcome to the club!” says Dr. Frederick Azar, a sports medicine doctor in Memphis, Tenn., and president of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
“I do believe it has promise,” Azar told me. “But there’s confusion at this point, because the data does conflict.”
Studies done in petri dishes show that the growth factors in platelets help tendons, ligaments and muscle heal faster. But randomized controlled trials like the French study are all over the map. As one 2012 review put it, rather tartly: “The observed trend towards benefit with PRP use still remains questionable.”