Platelet-Rich Plasma injections are the latest treatment fad in sports medicine. Celebrity athletes like Tiger Woods and NFL player Hines Ward swear that P.R.P injections helped them miraculously recover from torn ligaments, and now regular patients are pressing their orthopedic surgeons to try the same thing. There’s just one question: Do they work?
And the answer to that is: No one knows, because truly scientific studies have not been done in any rigorous way that would pass muster in a peer-reviewed journal.
The basic design of a scientific study would not be hard: Take any group of athletes who have suffered similar injuries. Half get injections with P.R.P. Half get injections of salt water. A coin flip decides who gets what. The injection syringes are disguised so that neither doctor nor patient knows if the injection is the “real stuff” or the placebo. Then you track the injury recovery of each patient and compare them.
But nobody has done that yet. It takes money to do such studies, and you can’t make patients pay thousands of dollars for a treatment that they may or may not be getting if they participate in the study.
The companies that make the machines that extract platelets from patients haven’t sponsored rigorous studies, and the National Institutes of Health hasn’t either. Meantime, as Gina Kolata (herself a runner who tried P.R.P. two years ago and couldn’t tell if it helped) describes in the New York Times, orthopedic surgeons who run sports injury clinics are being forced to decide between two models:
Are they operating boutique businesses, or trying to practice scientific medicine? Those who decide in favor of the business model are making a lot more money than their colleagues, even if they can’t hold their heads up high as medical scientists.