To avoid surgery and continue doing the activities he loves, Matthew R. Willey, M.D., a board certified physician, specializing in physical medicine, rehabilitation and sports medicine at Orlando Orthopaedic Center, found himself asking, “Do stem cells work?”

Dr. Willey was experiencing nagging pain in his hip and ankle, especially when working out, so he decided to use himself as a test to determine if stem cells work, injecting his hip and ankle with the alternative medicine therapy and recording the results.

When Dr. Willey underwent diagnostic tests to ascertain the state of his hip and ankle, it was determined he had a labral tear in his hip, as well as some mild arthritis combined with a stress fracture in his ankle.

“I’m pretty aware of various treatment options, and I’ve been utilizing these as needed at home,” Dr. Willey says. “Occasionally using anti-inflammatories, ice, and certainly I’ve done a significant amount of physical therapeutics and different types of exercise.”

Despite these efforts, Dr. Willey was looking for another non-surgical option to help get his hip and ankle to the next level. That’s when he turned to stem cell therapy.

What is Stem Cell Therapy?

Matthew R. Willey, M.D.

Matthew R. Willey, M.D.

Garnering increased attention in recent years is the use of stem cell therapy or platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections, to help people with knee, hip, ankle and other joint pain and disease.

“New in the news are treatments such as stem cells and platelet rich plasma,” says Dr. Willey. “You may be hearing more and more about them; the idea behind these treatments is that we hasten the body’s own abilities to heal and regenerate, and we use it to target various painful and pathological joints.”

Our blood, or plasma, consists of several micro components such as red and white cells and platelets. These platelets include hundreds of proteins, known as growth factors, critical in healing wounds and injuries.

A PRP injection contains a very high concentration of platelets, making its potency five to 10 times stronger than what is normally found in our blood. Stem cells can turn into virtually any cell in the body, so when they are injected into an area in need of healing, they can often promote rapid recovery wherever they are utilized.

How Does Platelet Rich Plasma Work?

PRP is prepared by drawing a patient’s blood and then separating the platelets from the rest of the blood cells. A procedure called centrifugation concentrates the platelets and growth factors, which are then injected directly into the injured tissue and mixed with the patient’s remaining blood. An ultrasound device is used to help the physician pinpoint the best area to insert the needle, which is what Dr. Willey used to inject himself.

willey-stem-cell-imagePRP injections use a concentration of platelets and growth factors to enhance the healing process and increase the tissue’s inherent ability to heal itself.

“Today, I’m going to be using amniotic suspension (stem cells), to see if I can have some improvement in both my ankle and my hip,” Dr. Willey says. “I’m going to perform ultrasound guided injections on my ankle and my hip, and we’ll see where we get.”

What Can You Expect After an Injection?

After a PRP injection, you may experience a few days of discomfort, and you may be prescribed pain medication to use as needed. Your physician will also suggest that you rest at least for a few days after your treatment and avoid anti-inflammatory medication.

“Afterwards I might have a little bit of soreness in my ankle and my hip,” says Dr. Willey. “It’s important to avoid anti-inflammatories; we want to actually use the inflammatory process to stimulate healing, and taking anti-inflammatory (medication) can sometimes limit that process. So we’re going to try and avoid anti-inflammatories for a period of two to four weeks.”

Patients normally start to see their pain levels drop within three to four weeks after their injection. Recovery times vary with each individual and the injury being treated. Your doctor will recommend that you keep intense physical activity to a minimum for a few weeks after your injection, so as not to strain the injected area.

“In addition, we usually limit aggressive activities about the joint,” Dr. Willey adds. “(In my case) I would avoid doing any stressful types of exercise or types of running for the next several weeks. I would stick to my normal activities which consist of weight resistance training and swimming.”

Talk to Your Doctor

PRP or stem cell injections clearly hold promise. If you are considering stem cell injection, it’s crucial to talk to your physician to confirm your eligibility, and to keep up on the latest research about stem cell therapy: what it’s effective in treating, and what it cannot accomplish.

Dr. Willey concurs: “When discussing stem cells, it’s really important to know what the current literature says: we know that stem cells can help long term with inflammation, we know that it can help with pain. We don’t know that definitive regeneration of articular cartilage occurs, and we don’t know that intervertebral discs actually regenerate and become new again.”

Three months after his stem cell injections, Dr. Willey is feeling much better and has been able to resume his normal activities without any limitations.

“I think there’s more research to be done in this field,” he says. “And I think the future is exciting in that regard.”