During the past several years, much has been written about a preparation called platelet-rich plasma (PRP) and its potential effectiveness in the treatment of injuries. Many famous athletes — Tiger Woods, tennis star Rafael Nadal, and several others — have received PRP for various problems, such as sprained knees and chronic tendon injuries. These types of conditions have typically been treated with medications, physical therapy, or even surgery. Some athletes have credited PRP with their being able to return more quickly to competition.
What Is Platelet-rich Plasma (PRP)?
Although blood is mainly a liquid (called plasma), it also contains small solid components (red cells, white cells, and platelets.) The platelets are known for their importance in clotting blood. However, platelets also contain hundreds of proteins called growth factors which are very important in the healing of injuries. PRP is plasma with many more platelets than what is typically found in blood. The concentration of platelets — and, thereby, the concentration of growth factors — can be 5 to 10 times greater (or richer) than usual.
To develop a PRP preparation, blood must first be drawn from a patient. The platelets are separated from other blood cells and their concentration is increased during a process called centrifugation. Then the increased concentration of platelets is combined with the remaining blood.
How Does PRP Work?
Although it is not exactly clear how PRP works, laboratory studies have shown that the increased concentration of growth factors in PRP can potentially speed up the healing process.
To speed healing, the injury site is treated with the PRP preparation. This can be done in one of two ways:
- PRP can be carefully injected into the injured area. For example, in Achilles tendonitis, a condition commonly seen in runners and tennis players, the heel cord can become swollen, inflamed, and painful. A mixture of PRP and local anesthetic can be injected directly into this inflamed tissue. Afterwards, the pain at the area of injection may actually increase for the first week or two, and it may be several weeks before the patient feels a beneficial effect.
- PRP may also be used to improve healing after surgery for some injuries. For example, an athlete with a completely torn heel cord may require surgery to repair the tendon. Healing of the torn tendon can possibly be improved by treating the injured area with PRP during surgery. This is done by preparing the PRP in a special way that allows it to actually be stitched into torn tissues.