The list of professional athletes who have pursued stem cell therapy as a treatment option continues to grow, and in many ways this growing group is setting the stage for the mainstream application of stem cell therapy. Stem cell therapy has been particularly popular with athletes due to the nature of sports injuries. Athletes are more likely than the general population to get injuries to areas like the knees where it’s very difficult for the body to self-heal. Additionally, because professional athletes want to return to play as soon as they safely can, this population has a particular incentive to pursue minimally invasive treatments that have a shorter recovery period.
Even among athletes, stem cell therapy is a relatively new treatment. In 2011, NFL quarterback Peyton Manning underwent a stem cell injection procedure before a cervical spinal fusion. In this case, the injection of stem cells into his neck was to help repair a neck injury from 2006 that had left him with pain and weakness in one arm and to encourage the fusion to take hold. At the time, stem cell therapy was just starting to gain public awareness and so fans and commentators were not exactly sure how to respond to the revelation that Manning had undergone an experimental procedure (he actually had to travel to Germany to have it done).
Now, stem cell therapy is common in the NFL. As of 2014, an average of six players on every NFL team had been treated with stem cell therapy. According to an article in Muscle and Medicine, when Chris Johnson of the New York Jets decided to undergo stem cell therapy for a knee injury, he was one of hundreds of NFL players to choose to undergo the therapy. At the time that Johnson chose to undergo stem cell therapy, the NFL did not cover the cost of the procedure; now, however, stem cell therapy has become an accepted treatment option for a range of injuries.
Stem cell therapy has potential applications in many areas of medicine. For example, researchers are particularly interested in the potential of stem cell therapy for people with cancers and heart disease. A quite different example of stem cell therapy comes from the late hockey player Gordie Howe. After Howe suffered a stroke in 2014, his doctors used neural and mesenchymal stem cells as part of his treatment. Both his physicians and his family feared that Howe was close to death following the stroke, but he lived for two more years.
Though much of the research in the area of stem cell therapy and other forms of regenerative medicine is still underway, the examples of athletes who have benefited from these treatments has increased public interest in and understanding of these procedures. Despite this greater demand, regenerative therapies can still be hard to access. At the Spine Institute Northwest, we work hard to stay on top of the latest advances in regenerative medicine, and to bring the potential benefits of these minimally invasive treatments to our patients. To learn more about regenerative treatments at the Spine Institute Northwest, call 206-496-0630 and speak to one of our patient advocates.