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Can Stem Cell Therapy help MLB pitchers avoid Tommy John Surgery?

Posted by Douglas W. Stoddard MD, M Sp Med, Dip Sport Med, ES on 14 November 2017
Can Stem Cell Therapy help MLB pitchers avoid Tommy John Surgery?

If you're a die-hard fan of baseball, you'll know that the winter isn't really the off-season.

Managers and owners come together at the annual Winter Meetings to wheel and deal, jostling to improve their rosters for contention next season.  With the potential investment of millions into the golden arms of these players, owners signing the checks must be sure the player will last the tenure of their contract.

Baseball players (especially pitchers) can quietly undergo therapies for their arm to avoid painful elbow surgeries. From high-school prospects to major-league hall-of-famers, therapy for the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) has been essential for pitchers hoping to have long, lucrative careers in the Major Leagues.

In 2016, Los Angeles Angels pitchers Andrew Heaney and Garrett Richards broke their silence and went public about undergoing a new form of treatment for arm pain: stem cell therapy. This was the first time that baseball players and their organizations admitted to trying this new cutting-edge procedure. The success of Heaney and Richards' rehabilitation can determine whether or not stem cell therapy can help MLB players avoid UCL surgeries. 

What is an Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL)?

The ulnar collateral ligament is a band of tissues that connect the humerus (upper arm) to the ulna (forearm). When your arm is in motion, the UCL acts as a stabilizer, preventing the joint from bending sideways.

The immense torque when throwing a 95mph fastball causes stress and trauma to the UCL, making pitchers prone to elbow injuries. Today, UCL damage has become so pervasive in the MLB, that Tommy John surgery (UCL reconstruction) has become a rite of passage for many professional pitchers.

Tommy John surgery: The Surgical blueprint for UCL injuries

In 1974, Tommy John, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, had the first UCL reconstruction surgery. The procedure was simple; the band of connective tissues that make up the UCL is replaced with a tendon sourced from another area or from a donated cadaver.

After John's successful UCL surgery, he was back on the field within 18 months. His rehabilitation became the framework for other pitchers going through the same injury. Since John's surgery, it takes the average pitcher 15 months or more to get back on the field, which can be damaging to a young player's career.

Throughout the mid-70's and 80's, it was rare to see players undergo UCL surgeries. But as baseball has evolved, the game continues to demand pitchers to throw harder to keep up with smarter and stronger hitters. From 2005 to 2015, there were 84 TJ surgeries on average, per year.

But in 2016, a shocking discovery was made the number of TJ surgeries dropped by 30%!

Why was this happening?

Many researchers believe this drop in TJ surgeries is due to the rise in stem cell therapy as an alternative musculoskeletal treatment.

What are Stem Cells, and Can They Help Pitchers Avoid Surgery?

Stem cells are a class of undifferentiated cells. They are unique because they can be made into other specialized cells to repair damaged tissue in different areas of the body. Stem cells are sourced from two places, embryos (embryonic stem cells) or adult tissue (adult stem cells).

Stem cell therapy for a torn UCL requires adult stem cells to be harvested from bone marrow, fat, or blood. Even though adult stem cells are less versatile than embryonic stem cells, they are primarily used to heal damaged tissue in the area they were originally sourced, making them suitable for repairing a torn UCL.

Stem cell therapy is a non-invasive alternative to surgery that uses your body's own cells to heal damaged tissue in the injured area. Similar to platelet-rich plasma therapy, stem cells are harvested and then spun through a centrifuge to produce a highly concentrated solution of stem cells. For MLB pitchers, the stem cell concentrate is injected directly into the elbow.

But how effective is stem cell therapy for MLB pitchers? Usually, pitchers undergo stem cell therapy as a preventative measure to avoid UCL surgery.

Even still, there isn't enough conclusive evidence to determine whether stem cell therapy is more effective than UCL surgery. We do know that Heaney and Richards' ligaments are healing but to what extent?

If both Los Angeles Angels pitchers make a full recovery, stem cell therapy will ultimately replace UCL surgery in the MLB for good.

If you're an injured athlete suffering from Tennis Elbow, Golfer's Elbow, or Elbow Arthritis, RegenerVate offers various stem-cell therapies and PRP injections to treat chronic joint and muscle pain. Best of all, there's no surgery - only the use of your body's own healing abilities!

Call us at 1-855-712-9901 to schedule an appointment, or drop by one of our Regenervate locations today!

Author: Douglas W. Stoddard MD, M Sp Med, Dip Sport Med, ES
About: Dr. Stoddard is a sport medicine and injection physician in Toronto and is the Medical Director of RegenerVate. After receiving his medical degree from the University of Toronto, he trained in Australia at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, obtaining his Master Degree in Sport Medicine. His injection training, including ultrasound, PRP and Prolotherapy, was primarily done in the USA. He is a diplomat of the Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine (CASEM), is married and a proud father of two boys. He is an avid triathlete and occasional guitar player.
Tags: Upper Body Treatment Options Stem Cell Research

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