Platelet-rich plasma therapy uses patient's own blood to heal injuries

Injuries are prevalent in sports, and athletes often have to take time off for surgery and rehab.

But a new procedure helped two of the Pittsburgh Steelers' biggest stars use their own blood to heal injuries before winning the Super Bowl.

It's called platelet-rich plasma therapy, and it is available right here in Michiana.

At least one major league pitcher and 20 professional soccer players have also had this emerging therapy, instead of going under the knife.

It's done right in a doctor's office, and you don't have to be an athlete to benefit -- it can even help softball dads and 5K moms.

"I was skeptical at first, and I'm not a real patient person," admits South Bend Police Officer Kevin Gibbons.

Kevin is a 24-year veteran of the force who developed tennis elbow from lifting weights.

"It progressed from just being uncomfortable, irritating, to the point where it was painful to pick up a glass or even shake hands or turn a door knob," he explains.

Kevin's doctor, Stephen Simons, suggested an emerging therapy that he was first in the area to use.

It doesn't require surgery, and it won't leave scars or a big hospital bill. Instead, a person's own blood is used to heal their injury.

Paula Brillson of Mishawaka ended up with tennis elbow from actually playing tennis.

"It got to the point about a year ago that I started to do cortisone shots, and that really took the pain away after a couple of days," she explains.

For some people, that's all they need. But for Paula the relief didn't last.

Like Kevin, her pain was chronic, so she also opted for platelet-rich plasma therapy.

At the doctor's office, her blood was drawn and then spun for 15 minutes.

"We're going to take the platelets out of the blood," explained assistant Stacy Boocher. "That's then going to be injected back into her elbow."

Dr. Simons uses an ultrasound to pinpoint the damaged area, and you can see how painful Paula's condition is with just a little pressure on her elbow.

After finding the spot and marking it, Paula gets a shot to numb her elbow.

With his eyes on the ultrasound, Dr. Simons inserts a needle and pokes holes in Paula's tendon. The goal is to have the platelets coax the body's instinct to repair itself.

The platelets work as a type of growth factor cocktail.

With a Band-Aid and a sling, Paula was able to head home 45 minutes later.

Dr. Simons prescribed pain pills for Paula, which she would likely need over the next few days. Over the next several weeks she should feel gradual relief.

Studies show patients have 50-percent pain reduction at four weeks, and 60 to 70-percent reduction in eight weeks. As time goes on, the numbers get better.

Paula is hoping there may be more tennis in her future.

"I guess I'm going to have to work on a one-hand back hand, which is not as much fun," she admits, laughing.

As for Kevin, he claims to feel pretty close to 100 percent only five months after the procedure.

Even better, he says he has been able to lift weights again, "With no pain."

Platelets have long been known to help the blood clot, but in the last 20 years research has shown that when activated in the body, they release healing proteins called growth factors.

In addition to tennis elbow, platelet-rich plasma therapy can also be used for problems with the Achilles tendon and knee and heel pain, and is also showing promise in treating osteoarthritis.

So whether you are a tennis buff, a police officer, or a professional athlete, a relatively obscure treatment could become the standard of care.

And in case you were wondering which Steelers had platelet-rich plasma therapy before the Super Bowl, the players in question were Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu. Both are convinced it got them back in the game.

For more information on this therapy, read the American Journal of Sports Medicine article titled Treatment of Chronic Elbow Tendinosis With Buffered Platelet-Rich Plasma.

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