For the love of the game – why sports legends chose stem cell therapy to get back on track

 In Stem Cell Uses

The days when an elite athlete’s career could be ended prematurely due to injury could become a thing of the past. Increasingly, top sports stars are electing to be treated with regenerative stem cell therapy instead of major surgery to repair career-threatening injuries.

And they are benefitting from improved outcomes and a quicker return to action.

Tennis legend Rafael Nadal, soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo and NFL quarterback (and two time Super Bowl champion) Peyton Manning are among the top sports figures who have already undergone stem cell therapy.

Stem cell therapy has received widespread attention for breaking new ground in the treatment of chronic diseases, including heart disease and some forms of cancer, but its use in the treatment of sports-related injuries has been less publicised. Where the likes of Nadal, Ronaldo and Manning have led, however, countless sports players of all levels will surely follow, as they discover the effectiveness of stem cell therapy in treating injuries such as tendon inflammation, muscle strain, arthritis, degenerative disc disease, and even bone fractures.

Stem cell therapy has received widespread attention for breaking new ground in the treatment of chronic diseases, including heart disease and some forms of cancer, but its use in the treatment of sports-related injuries has been less publicised.

What sports injuries are being treated by stem cell therapy?

Common injuries to the musculoskeletal system have traditionally required surgery, which can cause severe interruptions in a sports career. Taking stem cells from the patient and injecting them into the damaged area is providing a less traumatic remedy to a range of sports injuries, including: 

Knee injuries: When an athlete suffers from a knee injury, shock-absorbing cartilage within the joint can often deteriorate, leading to intense pain and discomfort. Stem cell therapy can be used to reverse this process by restoring cartilage and even protecting it against future injuries. When the muscles surrounding the knee become damaged through overuse or wear and tear, stem cells can help regenerate new muscle tissue. 

Tendon or ligament damage: A tendon is an elasticated tough tissue that attaches muscle to bone while a ligament attaches bone to bone. Overuse and frequent repeated movements, common in sports such as tennis and running, can lead to eventual tendon and ligament damage, particularly in the elbow, Achilles, bicep and hamstring tendons. Stem cell therapy can help heal damaged tendons and ligaments by restoring their structure and strength. 

Stress fractures: This type of injury occurs when a substantial amount of strain is placed on the body’s bones and joints. A common example in sport is shin splints and nearly all sports carry the risk of stress fracture. However, stem cell therapy can help to repair such damage by stimulating the growth of blood vessels. This, in turn, encourages bones to naturally repair themselves. 

Back injuries: Lower back pain is not only a debilitating problem faced by many athletes, it is also a very common health problem, affecting more than one person in 10. Stem cells can be injected into a problematic disc in the spine to ease inflammation and help rebuild damaged tissue. In a trial in Melbourne, Australia, 100 patients with back pain who have had stem cell therapy have shown substantial improvements in function and pain relief lasting two years or more. MRI scans found that the stem cells appeared to have rebuilt the damaged discs. 

Head injuries: Damage to the head caused by sports such as US football, boxing or rugby has become a serious issue. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) can be caused by a single violent action or through a series of concussive knocks over a period of time, known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). With CTE, the most serious of symptoms may not show up for months or even years after the injury was sustained. Stem cell therapy has the potential to treat TBI regardless of its origins or, in some cases, regardless of how long the damage has been taking place, by repairing and relieving the symptoms. According to researchers carrying out a recent clinical trial looking at the treatment of TBI at the University of Texas Health Science Center, the use of stem cell therapy helps alleviate the body’s inflammatory response in the brain to the trauma. The aim is to have stem cells restore the intricate purposes of each brain region that has been damaged.

Stem cell therapy has the potential to treat TBI regardless of its origins or, in some cases, regardless of how long the damage has been taking place, by repairing and relieving the symptoms.

Who’s had stem cell treatment?

Here are just some of the world’s sporting superstars who have turned to stem cell therapy to help them recover from injury and get back in action as quickly as possible. 

Rafael Nadal: Currently ranked number one in the world in men’s singles tennis, Rafael Nadal received stem cell therapy for chronic bouts of knee pain, which eventually forced the 31-year-old Spaniard to take a seven-month lay-off from the sport in 2013. The following year he was also given the treatment for a back injury, common among tennis players. Stem cell therapy was used to help produce an anti-inflammatory effect and regenerate and repair damaged cartilage. 

Cristiano Ronaldo: The Real Madrid soccer ace was reported to have undergone stem cell therapy to help speed up recovery from a torn hamstring suffered last year. Hamstring injuries are common in football as the hamstring muscles and tendons can be overstretched, resulting in a tear. 

Pau Gasol: During the 2013 season, the top Spanish basketball player was struggling with knee pain, which was so severe he had to use crutches. Gasol received stem cell injections in both his knees as part of his treatment for tendonosis (a degeneration of the tissue) in order to help stimulate regrowth of the damaged tissue. 

Peyton Manning: In 2011, the legendary NFL quarterback was reported to have travelled to Europe to receive stem cell therapy for a neck problem caused by a bulging disc. After undergoing surgery several times that same year in an attempt to correct the injury, Manning was given the stem cell therapy to help stimulate the regeneration of the nerves around his neck. 

Kobe Bryant: The five-time NBA basketball champion was also reported to have received stem cell therapy in 2013, to help treat his arthritic right knee and dampen down the inflammatory response that left him in severe pain. Following the stem cell therapy, which was part of a follow-up to previous treatments, Bryant returned rejuvenated and enjoyed one of his best seasons ever. 

How stem cell therapy treats joint injuries

When joints become overused or suffer sudden trauma or injury, the supporting tissue (muscles, ligaments, tendons and cartilage) triggers an inflammatory response, characterised by pain, swelling, stiffening and a difficulty in flexing the joints. Eventually this process leads to progressive degeneration. Stem cell therapy helps the body heal naturally by working to replenish cells that are damaged by disease, injury or normal wear and tear. It also helps reduce pain and inflammation, increase blood flow and promote soft tissue growth. 

How stem cells can be collected and administered

The best sources of stem cells are the blood from a newborn baby’s umbilical cord, the bone marrow or body fat. Cord blood stem cells can be collected at birth in a non-invasive procedure and frozen and stored for future use. In adults, stem cells can be collected from the patient for immediate use. The stem cells are processed to produce a concentrated sample and then injected back into the injured area. When administering stem cell injections, ultrasound may be used in order to deliver the cells precisely to the required area. The procedure is minimally invasive and can be completed in a day. 

Why athletes are opting for stem cell therapy

For all athletes the most important thing after suffering an injury is to recover and get back playing as quickly as possible. Sports injuries can take a long time to heal and some never fully heal. Treatment options usually involve masking the pain with steroid injections, joint repair or replacement surgery, or lengthy physiotherapy, which often doesn’t target the root cause. Stem cell therapy gives patients an efficient alternative to painful surgery and a lengthy recovery. It offers a non-surgical, minimally invasive, safe and effective treatment with no long and painful period of rehabilitation. Patients who undergo this groundbreaking form of therapy to treat these types of injuries are also far less vulnerable from the risks associated with surgical procedures, such as blood clots or infection.

Stem cell therapy gives patients an efficient alternative to painful surgery and a lengthy recovery.

Stem cell therapy can not only help speed up the healing process and improve post-treatment results but it also has the capability to reverse existing damage and strengthen cells against further damage. It helps to quickly reduce inflammation and increase mobility, with many patients reporting improvements very soon after treatment. The normal recovery time for tendonosis in the knees is three to six months; when Pau Gasol received stem cell therapy for tendonosis in both his knees, he was back walking without crutches within three weeks.

Although every sports-related injury is unique, stem cell therapy can provide solutions to an increasing number of problems, from joint and musculature damage to back and head injuries. It offers a chance to move away from more invasive methods and instead use state-of-the-art regenerative medicine to promote fast and effective healing.

Of course, it’s not just professional sports stars who can gain from this groundbreaking form of medicine. Anyone who enjoys an active lifestyle and then suffers an injury as a result may benefit from stem cell therapy. And you can safeguard your children’s health and fitness too, by investing in the banking of their cord blood stem cells when they’re born.

About the author: Shamshad Ahmed, CEO and Founder of Smart Cells International.
Shamshad Ahmed is CEO and Founder of Smart Cells International Ltd. Opening in 2000, Smart Cells became the UK’s first private cord blood company – its goal to give parents more access to potentially life-saving treatment for their families. It is one of the UK’s largest private banks, operating across the globe and storing over 50,000 cord blood samples from people in over 70 countries. Shamshad started his career in finance and foreign exchange at Citibank before moving over to the world of clinical trials. He holds a BA from Nottingham Trent University, and he has been a member of the Young President’s Organization since 2008 – having served on the board for a number of those years.

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