High-Tech Knee Treatments: Are They Ready for Prime Time?

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Kobe Bryant has tried PRP and stem cells for injured knees. Sean M Haffey / Getty Images

Platelet-Rich Plasma

PRP treatment has become the preferred high-tech solution for chronic knee problems and is offered at many sports-medicine centers. A small amount of your blood is concentrated in a centrifuge, creating a plasma rich in stem cells and proteins. The substance is then injected into damaged joints or ripped tendons and ligaments to jump-start healing, reduce inflammation, and spur the growth of new, healthy tissue. A recent pilot study of osteoarthritis sufferers showed that three PRP injections significantly improved function, decreased pain, and provided symptom relief for up to a year. Doctors usually recommend up to three injections, depending on the severity of a patient's condition, at a cost of $400 to $800 per shot, which insurance typically won't cover. Verdict: A proven strategy that's worth considering for osteoarthritis and tissue tears or thinning.

Stem Cell Therapy

Stem cell injections are on the rise, fueled by stories of Kobe Bryant's and Peyton Manning's use of the treatment to heal injured joints, fix damaged tissue, and extend their playing careers. Some experts, though, think testimonials about miracle cures are overblown and caution that the procedures are as yet unproven. "Stem cells are still considered experimental, and they can be quite expensive," says Kim Stearns, an orthopedic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic who is studying SCT's efficacy. "But within the next three to five years, we'll see scientific papers that document their benefits, and they'll become more mainstream." Right now the only known side effect is sticker shock: up to $2,500 an injection, with at least two required before seeing any results. Verdict: For now, a high price to pay for a questionable procedure.

Hyaluronic Acid Injections

Our joints are greased by a natural body fluid called hyaluronan, but the lubricant thins as we age. Shots of hyaluronic acid, a synthetic form of the lubricant that is injected directly into the area around the knee, has been shown to provide relief for arthritis sufferers who haven't seen results from physical therapy, cortisone injections, or painkillers. Some patients swear by it, but a recent review of nearly 90 studies suggests that the treatment — which costs about $500 per injection and is only sometimes covered by insurance — is just marginally effective. Potential side effects, such as joint stiffness, bleeding, pain, or swelling, may outweigh benefits, too. A recent report by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons told patients, in essence, to save their money. Verdict: A last resort for those with serious arthritic pain.