My right elbow has been giving me troubles for over a year now and my rheumatologist referred me to an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in hands and elbows. An MRI revealed a 50% tear in a tendon. Other parts of the elbow exhibit pain. In fact, the left elbow also displays the same symptoms but to a lesser extent probably due to the fact that I am right handed. The orthopedic doctor knows about my struggles with RA and my history with soft tissue damage. In fact, he works in the same clinic with the surgeon who conducted three surgeries on my ankles.
A bevy of conservative treatments were prescribed starting with rest and immobilization with splints designed to prevent movement of the tendon. After that failed to help, a cortisone injection was done. The doctor also used the needle to aggravate the tissue in the joint in order to stimulate a healing process by increasing blood flow to the region. Needless to say, excruciating pain was experienced for the next 24 hours but after that, the steroid provided some relief…for about 1 month after which time the pain returned. Occupational therapy was then prescribed. Occupational therapists (OT) tend to focus on the arm from the elbow down to the hand and they engage in treatments similar to physical therapists. Treatments included heat and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), gentle stretching exercises, and continued use of immobilization with splints. The goal was to move into more rigorous strength building exercises. But this goal was never met as the pain only became worse. After several months of OT, the therapist made the decision that things were getting worse and indicated that I need to return to the surgeon to determine next steps. At about this time, severe neck problems were popping up and the orthopedic surgeon and I both agreed that priority needed to be given to the neck. The past six months were devoted to recovering from neck surgery.
The elbow continued to cause problems and it came to the point where use was difficult and pain was constant so I returned to the orthopedic surgeon. He said that surgery to repair the torn tendon and its attachment point to the bone would be the next option. But before doing that, he wanted to try one more, last ditch strategy – a platelet-rich plasma injection or PRP. He admitted that the research was sketchy and that it was not an FDA or insurance approved treatment. I would be required to pay for it out of pocket and the cost will be about $300. His argument is that in spite of the lack of experimental research on its effectiveness, there is clinic evidence, it is relatively inexpensive, and it is not as invasive as surgery. He did give me a choice between PRP and surgery but his comments were, “If it were me, I would do this first before having surgery.”
In PRP, a patient’s blood is drawn, platelets are separated from other blood components, and the concentrated solution is injected into a joint that has tissue damage in an effort to jump-start a healing process. The theory is that growth factors contained in the platelets are able to help damaged tissue heal. It has been applied to tendon areas like the Achilles and elbow where there is a lack of blood low and healing is difficult. This approach is quite popular with professional athletes but clinical trails show mixed results (Harmon & Rao, 2013).
In medical practice, there is a range of possible qualities of treatments. Balshem et al (2010) categorizes the ranges from very low quality to high quality evidence. The approval of drugs would rate as high quality evidence. At the lowest end of the evidence quality continuum would be treatments that have little or conflicting evidence. Platelet-rich plasma would rank at the lowest end. This is why the FDA and insurance companies won’t approve it. There is even less research about PRP and rheumatoid arthritis. A search of research studies specific to RA revealed one study conducted on pigs and another conducted in 1989 on knees of RA patients. Never provided sufficient evidence documenting the effectiveness of PRP for rheumatoid arthritis.
Given the lack of evidence, I remain quite skeptical about PRP but am willing to give it a shot (pun intended) in order to avoid surgery.