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Many popular sports-injury treatments are unproven

Many unproven treatments made popular by celebrity athletes often prove futile.
Creative Commons/Mike Baird
Many unproven treatments made popular by celebrity athletes often prove futile.

New York Times medical writer Gina Kolata published a great article over the weekend on why popular treatments for sports injuries are often so futile.

Many of the treatments have no good scientific evidence behind them to show that they work.

This is “a growing problem in sports medicine, a medical subspecialty that has been experiencing explosive growth,” Kolata writes. “Part of the field’s popularity, among patients and doctors alike, stems from the fact that celebrity athletes, desperate to get back to playing after an injury, have been trying unproven treatments, giving the procedures a sort of star appeal. But now researchers are questioning many of the procedures, including new ones that often have no rigorous studies to back them up.”

“The problem is that most sports injuries, including tears of the hamstring ligament … have no established treatments,” she adds. “ … But patients whose injuries have no effective treatment often do not know that medicine has nothing to offer. And many expect cures.”

Case in point: P.R.P treatments
One of those unproven but currently popular “cures” is platelet-rich plasma (P.R.P.) therapy, which is touted as having helped Tiger Woods and other sports celebrities recover more quickly from injuries.

As Kolata explains, the idea behind this treatment is that “blood contains platelets that secrete growth factors that, in turn, can help tissue heal. So if a patient’s own platelets are injected into the injury site, they might speed recovery. And since it is the patient’s own platelets, the treatment is unlikely to be harmful.”

That may sound good in theory, but, as Kolata points out, research on P.R.P. has been less than rigorous, and the best studies have had disappointing results:

For example, one found that the treatment was no better than saline injections for people with Achilles tendinopathy, a painful injury that often afflicts athletes like runners or tennis players and resists treatment.
Maybe, some said, the problem is that P.R.P. diffuses after it is injected.
Dr. Scott Rodeo of the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York addressed that in a new study. His patients had torn their rotator cuffs, a tendon in the shoulder, a painful injury affecting tennis players and swimmers, among others.
During surgery to sew the tendon together, Dr. Rodeo added P.R.P. directly to the injury, embedding it in a fibrin matrix that, he said, “is sort of like chewing gum” to ensure it stayed in place. The procedure did not help.

As Kolata points out, P.R.P. isn’t cheap. Treatments can cost $1,000 or more per session, and many people end up repeating the procedure.

For anybody with any kind of sports injury, Kolata’s article is definitely a must-read — and (if you’re not a Times subscriber) worth “spending” one of your free monthly Times articles on.

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