NFL Players Tackle Pain with Regenerative Medicine

By A. Rahman Ford, Columnist

Several members of the Seattle Seahawks have opted for a regenerative medicine therapy called Regenokine to treat their pain and injuries, and the players believe it has made a big difference. 

The Seahawks were one of the NFL’s healthiest teams last season, ranking 5th out of 32 teams overall.  However, key players such as defensive back Earl Thomas and wide receiver Tyler Lockett had season ending injuries. Other players, like quarterback Russell Wilson and cornerback Richard Sherman, had nagging injuries that limited their effectiveness on the field. 

Unfortunately, serious injuries are all too common in the NFL.  According to NFL injury data, the incidence of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears in the knee during the regular season has remained relatively consistent since 2012, with 36 reported in 2016. 

Likewise, the incidence of medial collateral ligament (MCL) tears has remained steady, with 143 incidents reported last season.  Suffice it to say, these injuries can require surgery, shorten playing careers and can be extremely painful, both physically and emotionally.

SEAHAWKS RECEIVER DOUG BALDWIN

SEAHAWKS RECEIVER DOUG BALDWIN

Painkiller Use in the NFL

To cope with the pain, many NFL players resort to using opioid painkillers. According to the Washington Post, sealed court filings in a lawsuit filed by 1,800 former players asserted that the NFL violated federal law in prescribing painkillers to players.  Specifically, the players contended that the NFL disregarded DEA guidance on how to distribute controlled substances, and encouraged players to use powerful painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs.  Team doctors who were deposed admitted to violating federal laws in prescribing painkillers. 

According to the filings, the average NFL team prescribed 5,777 doses of NSAIDs and 2,213 doses of controlled medications.  This amount averages to about 6-7 pain pills or injections per week per player. As a result, the players maintain that they suffered long-term organ and joint damage. 

In some cases, painkiller use in the NFL has led to addiction.  Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Farve, known for his durability and aggressive play, detailed how he would take 15 Vicodin at a time every day, and even resorted to asking teammates for their pills.

Regenerative Medicine as an Alternative to Existing Pain Therapies

In search of treatment options, several Seahawks traveled to England this year for a procedure known as Regenokine, or Orthokine.  The patented process was invented by Dr. Peter Wehling, Co-Director of the Center for Molecular Orthopaedics and Regenerative Medicine in Dusseldorf, Germany.  He, along with Klaus Wehling and biologist Dr. Julio Reinecke, founded the company Orthogen in 1993 to provide a joint-preserving alternative to traditional surgery. 

Orthokine works by using a patented syringe to incubate the “autologous conditioned serum” (ACS) in a patient's blood. In this phase, the blood is exposed to glass spheres, enriching the number of anti-inflammatory cytokines, interleukin agonists, and multiple growth factors.  After incubation, the blood is spun in a centrifuge to separate the solid components from the serum.  The ACS is later injected into the affected tissues. 

The therapy is not yet FDA approved, but is being offered by some clinics in the U.S. The cost of the procedure can vary.  Lloyd Sederer, MD, chief medical officer of the New York State Office of Mental Health, went to California in 2011 for ACS therapy of his arthritic knees and sore shoulders. He was charged $9,000 for the first joint and $3,000 for each subsequent joint.

Is the Treatment Effective?

Research on the effectiveness of the ACS/Orthokine/Regenokine treatment is scant but positive.  A 2015 study by Garcia-Escudero and Hernandez-Trilllos of 118 patients with unilateral knee osteoarthritis found significant improvements in pain over a two-year period.  These patients chose to forego surgery and instead opted for ACS and physiotherapy. 

A 2009 study had similar results with 376 osteoarthritis patients, concluding that the ACS therapy reduced pain and increased functional mobility for up to two years.  However, Rutgers et al. (2015) found no significant, long-term clinical improvement in 20 patients with osteoarthritis treated with ACS.  In 2009, Becker et al. used ACS successfully on patients with unilateral lumbar radiculopathy, or sciatica.  Ravi Kumar et al. (2015) replicated those results in 20 patients, leading the authors to conclude that “ACS can modify disease course in addition to reducing pain, disability and improving general health.”  In no study were there significant safety issues.

The reality is that interest in the therapy is largely driven by anecdotal, but promising evidence.  Dr. Sederer, who detailed his ACS treatment in an Atlantic article, was very happy with the results.  Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright had ACS therapy to treat his nagging knee injury and told the Seattle Times he felt “1,000 percent better” than before.  Receiver Doug Baldwin, Defensive End Michael Bennett and several other Seahawks also traveled to Europe for ACS therapy.

Player reports have been so positive that Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll affectionately refers to receiving the therapy as “entering the circle.”  Other athletes have reported similar positive results, including MLB player Alex Rodriguez, NBA star Kobe Bryant and professional volleyball player Lindsay Berg.

Another Option in Tackling Chronic Pain

Overall, ACS/Orthokine/Regenokine therapy is very promising in treating pain.  However, the dearth of clinical data may cause some patients to choose a different option.  In addition, the cost – which is not covered by insurance – is likely prohibitive for most. 

To further complicate matters, there have been no published studies comparing the efficacy of ACS to other, better researched regenerative therapies such as platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy or stem cell therapy.  However, the good news for patients is that regenerative medicine alternatives to prescription painkillers are becoming more popular and more widely accepted.

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A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional who lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor in Chief of the Howard Law Journal.

Rahman has received stem cell treatment and closely follows developments in regenerative medicine. He is not affiliated with any stem cell treatment provider.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.