In the cutthroat world of elite sports, sidelined players often seek fringe medicine for faster, more robust recoveries. Injections of stem cells and blood plasma, au courant among the pros, can blur the line between therapy and performance enhancement. But science is no panacea. Stem cell therapies are clinically unproven, the physiology of head trauma remains a mystery, and rest is still the best Rx for pulled muscles. Here, the four most medically intriguing injuries in sports.
CONCUSSION Repeated blows to the head may cause permanent brain damage. Boston University neuroscientists recently studied the brains of 15 deceased pro football players and found that 14 had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative condition similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease. The National Football League, in response, is considering helmet sensors to measure the force of hits.
TENDON TEARS Before his problems off the course, Tiger Woods’s biggest concern was a frail Achilles tendon. In 2009 the condition improved after injections of platelet-rich plasma that had been centrifuged out of his blood. Some doctors believe the plasma prods tissue to repair itself, but studies show mixed results. In one trial, the therapy helped 66 percent of elbow tendinitis patients; another showed no benefit.
OBLIQUE STRAINS By July, 30 major-league baseball players had spent time on the disabled list with strained obliques, the flat abdominal muscles that rotate the torso, compared with only 19 last season and virtually none a decade ago. Washington Nationals physician Bruce Thomas suspects the torque from stronger swings and harder throws is putting increased pressure on the abdominal muscles. For now, the surest remedy is a low-tech combination of rest, ice, and rehabilitation exercises.
TORN LIGAMENTS A 38-year-old pitcher with a torn arm ligament is about as promising a prospect as a three-legged racehorse. The New York Yankees’ Bartolo Colon has emerged as the exception this season after receiving injections of adult stem cells taken from his own fat and bone marrow. Does he owe his success to stem cells, his natural healing powers, or both? Unfortunately, patent protections prevent the independent clinical trials required to find out.