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A new blood treatment for Olympians, other star athletes

A new blood treatment for Olympians, other star athletes

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A new therapy for distressed joints and backs is drawing big-name athletes ... and raising questions because it remains unproven.

How do you treat chronic pain? Common answers might be painkillers, acupuncture and rest.

But for professional athletes like Kobe Bryant, golfer Vijay Singh, the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez and Olympic volleyball player Lindsey Berg, treatment can be something much more novel and expensive.

They're all devotees of a new procedure called Regenokine, developed by Dr. Peter Wehling in Dusseldorf, Germany, which has generated buzz not only because of his A-list clientele but also because his technique has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

How the treatment works

In a Regenokine treatment, a patient's blood is withdrawn, incubated at a slightly higher temperature (in order to "give the blood a fever," according to Wired) and spun in a centrifuge. At that point, the blood cells produce proteins that decrease inflammation and push cellular growth.

Sometimes, Dr. Wehling adds more anti-inflammatory proteins. Then, he injects the final solution back into the aggravated area. The treatment takes five days and costs 6,000 euros (about $7,400).

His procedure is one in a new cateogory of treatments called "biologic medicine," which extract a patient's own tissues, manipulate them and then reintroduce them to the body.

The field, which is rapidly growing, includes another blood-spinning called platelet-rich plasma, or P.R.P., in which the blood is spun in order to produce many platelet cells, which aid in healing.

These procedures are marked by their intention to treat not just the mechanical problems in the problem joints but to directly address inflammation as a problem and not only as a symptom.

And the science?

Because this procedure is so young -- just a few years old -- there is very little evidence of its effectiveness. Grantland reports that Regenokine showed the most promise in a 2008 study of 376 patients who were given injections either of saline, hyaluronic acid or manipulated blood. Only 32% of patients found relief in the first two groups, while more than two-thirds of the patients in the Regenokine group felt better.

An American doctor who employs the technique says that, when combined with lifestyle changes, such as a healthier diet and sleeping routine, the therapy has a success rate approaching 90%.

But, as Dr. Freddie Fu, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, points out, the therapy's gimmick is to make patients think it's safe because it uses their own bodily fluids. But he conceded:

There has been some impressive research done already, and there is a good scientific fundament to do more research. However, before the F.D.A. approves, more high-quality independent trials have to be done in order to prove the effectiveness.

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via: The New York Times, Wired, Grantland

photo: Keith Allison/Flickr

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure