Will Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP) Injections Replace Cortisone?

The answer to this question is simple: Yes, No and Maybe. Platelet-Rich Plasma injections have taken the orthopedic world by storm. Why is this? They are safe. They are natural. They can be done in the office in a short period of time. They may prevent surgery in some cases. They can be disease-altering, not just symptom-reducing. Most importantly, in many cases of tendon, ligament and joint problems, they are EFFECTIVE.

PRP injections involve drawing blood from a patient’s vein, typically in the arm. Then, the blood is centrifuged (spun) to separate out the red and white blood cells, while simultaneously concentrating your own platelets. Our platelets are known to have numerous growth factors that serve many beneficial roles in our musculoskeletal tissues. This concentrated solution is then injected under ultrasound-guidance back into an area of damage, such as a partially torn tendon, the plantar fascia or an arthritic joint. We believe that these platelets help to modulate unhealthy inflammation that resides in damaged tissues. This helps over the long-term to reduce pain and subsequently, improve function. In some cases, damaged soft tissue can heal in the presence of these concentrated platelets. In other cases, the deterioration often seen in cases of osteoarthritis can be slowed or halted. Thus, there are some preventative benefits of PRP.

Cortisone injections, known medically as steroids, have been around for decades. They simply are very strong anti-inflammatories. They can reduce pain and swelling within hours to days of an injection. However, they are known to have catabolic, or “breakdown” effects, meaning, numerous exposures to steroids can worsen the structure and strength of a soft tissue or joint. They also can produce short-term systemic side effects, including fluid retention, headache, insomnia, changes in emotions, skin flushing/redness and increases in blood sugar, particularly in diabetics. Cortisone injections are still used quite frequently to treat tendonitis, arthritis and disc problems in the spine.

Now, back to the question in the title. In our practice, we still use both types of injections. However, the percentage of PRP injections is increasing, while the percentage of cortisone is dropping. Why? We want our patients to have “game-changing” treatments whenever possible. We want conditions to improve over the long-term. We want to stop that deterioration process and to promote healing when possible. Also, we know that in the case of cortisone injections, some patients feel so good, so quickly, that they are prone to re-injure themselves. Thus, short-term improvement, but long-term worsening with some cortisone injections.

Thus, how do we choose what type of injection to recommend to a patient? Here are some examples:

-A 60-year-old woman will be traveling on a bucket-list trip to Italy in one week. Her arthritic knee is painful and swollen, and she needs some quick relief to really enjoy this trip. We choose a CORTISONE injection to provide that relief. She will likely feel better within a few days of the injection and will probably see a benefit for 1-3 months.

-A 35-year-old runner tore his ACL at age 20 and had successful surgery. Now, he has mild osteoarthritis of the knee that is stiff in the morning, aches after long runs and occasionally swells. He is a great candidate for PRP. PRP should help his keep inflammation down, reduce his aches and preserve his cartilage in his knee for years to come.

-A 65-year old woman has had 2 weeks of lateral hip pain after a trip to the beach with frequent walking. She can’t sleep on the side of her painful hip and going up stairs is difficult. We diagnose her with trochanteric bursitis and gluteal tendonitis. A CORTISONE injection here may do the trick. She has an acute inflammatory response and needs some relief to simply sleep better at night and handle her activities of daily living with less pain.

-A 24-year-old recreational basketball player has patellar tendonopathy and pain every time he jumps and lands. Symptoms have been present for 6 months and despite physical therapy, a brace and NSAIDS, he is only 50% better. We offer him 1-2 PRP injections. We need to promote healing of that tendon. We want long-term reduction in symptoms and tissue improvement, so that he can continue to play basketball and with reduced risk of tearing the tendon. Plus, we never inject cortisone in or around certain tendons, including the patellar and Achilles tendons, due to the risk of tendon rupture.

-A 70-year-old has mild to moderate hip and knee osteoarthritis. He can play golf a couple days a week, but relies on frequent doses of ibuprofen after his golf games and on days he plays with his grandchildren. His hoping to avoid joint replacement in his lifetime and knows that long-term use of NSAIDs is not good for his blood pressure, stomach or kidneys. We offer him PRP as a great option, with an injection into the knee and hip joints on the same day. He then will return a month later for his 2nd set of injections. After that, we hope and expect that he will have less pain and better function for 6 to 24 months, while also lowering his chances of joint replacement in the intermediate future. These PRP injections can be safely repeated months to years later, if necessary.

These are everyday examples of how we customize our treatments for patients based on their symptoms, diagnosis and goals. Age of the patient can play a role, but one is never “too old” to have a PRP injection. When head-to-head studies compare PRP to steroid injections, PRP is declared the “winner” the large majority of the time. Thus, we know that for long-term benefits of many joint and tendon problems, PRP is the better choice.

In conclusion, cortisone/steroid injections are not going away any time soon. They still play a role in helping patients in select situations. However, the world of orthobiologic injections such as PRP will only continue to expand as we strive to find more natural and less-invasive ways to treat a variety of orthopedic conditions.

The Top 5 Reasons to Have a Regenerative Injection

Regenerative injections, also known as orthobiologic injections, include platelet-rich plasma (PRP), amniotic membrane and fluid, alpha-2 macroglobulin and mesenchymal stem cell (MSC)

1)      Cortisone has not gotten the job done- corticosteroid injections are potent anti-inflammatories and can be effective in treating inflammatory conditions, but these have either zero or even a detrimental effect on healing. Most chronic tendon problems are not inflammatory, and thus, cortisone will provide minimal long-term benefit. Not all cases of arthritis are inflammatory either.

2)      You are hoping to avoid surgery or you had surgery and are less than satisfied- we know that certain surgeries produce superior outcomes compared to nonsurgical treatment, particularly in younger and active individuals. Examples include ACL reconstruction after a full ACL tear and shoulder stabilizing procedures after multiple dislocations. However, there are numerous conditions that have equal or superior outcomes with nonsurgical treatment. These include small tears of the rotator cuff, hamstring, patellar and Achilles tendons; plantar fasciitis; degenerative meniscal tears; tennis and golfer’s elbow and mild to moderate osteoarthritis of the knee, hip, shoulder and basal thumb joint. These conditions are ideal candidates for regenerative injections, especially when traditional surgical and nonsurgical treatments are not producing major levels of benefit

3)      Cost- no, insurance does not cover regenerative injections. However, these injections are designed to provide long-term or permanent benefit. The expected goals are months to years of reduction in pain, improvement in function, soft tissue healing and slowing or suspending joint degeneration, i.e., preventing osteoarthritis from getting worse. Thus, these injections have a very good chance of saving you money. These benefits translate into fewer physician’s visits, fewer trips to physical therapy (although we still see the value of PT), fewer medications and potentially, the elimination of the need for an expensive surgery.

4)      You want a game-changing treatment, not one that just treats symptoms- regenerative injections are designed to change the environment of the area injected. Through the introduction of nutrients, growth factors and potentially stem cells, the goal of these injections is to not only make a patient feel and function better, but also to produce a healing response. This can mean tendon or ligament re-growth, cartilage regeneration and/or the reduction of unhealthy inflammation in the area of damage.

5)      The medical literature- although insurance companies would like to paint regenerative injections as “experimental” and thus not pay for them, the truth is that there are now hundreds of studies that demonstrate a clinically significant benefit in the treatment of chronic tendon problems and osteoarthritis with regenerative injections. In fact, hot off the press, a prominent sports medicine journal just posted a detailed review of orthobiologic injections. The authors came to this conclusion:  There was a total of 21 PRP (platelet-rich plasma) studies in the study. All PRP studies showed clinical improvement with PRP therapies in outcomes surveys measuring patient satisfaction, pain, and function…. The one PRP study that had a 2nd look arthroscopy reported increased cartilage regeneration with PRP. All 8 MSC (mesenchymal stem cell) studies with follow-up MRI and all 7 MSC studies with 2nd look arthroscopy showed improvement in cartilage regeneration in terms of coverage, fill of the defect, and/or firmness of the new cartilage.

Translation: patients are very satisfied with their outcomes after receiving these injections, and there is evidence that new cartilage is growing in response to these injections.

In conclusion, regenerative injections are rapidly entering and evolving within the world of orthopedic medicine. At this point, both their present and future look very bright. When considering a regenerative injection, seek the consultation of a medical doctor who has vast experience in researching and performing these procedures.

-Clarke Holmes, M.D.