When doctors told Aviva Gianetti of River Vale, N.J., that she would need surgery in both arms to heal her tennis elbow, she wanted to find a way out of it.
Gianetti, in her late 50s, goes to the gym several times a week and won't pass up the chance to play golf. But the soreness and pain running down both of her arms has left her unable to partake in her favorite game.
Still, Gianetti was adamant against having surgery, so her specialist took an experimental approach: He gave her a shot of her own platelet rich plasma in both elbows . For Gianetti, two rounds of injections were all it took to get her back on the golf course at full swing.
The procedure, formally called platelet rich plasma, or PRP, injections, uses natural nutrients from the patient's own blood to heal the joints. Blood cells are separated from the liquid part of the blood, and then the clotted blood cells – or plasma – are inserted into the damaged joint. Previous animal and human studies suggest that plasma can help repair damaged cartilage and joints.
Athletes like basketball star Kobe Bryant and Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte have undergone PRP injections. But this method to alleviate joint pain has grown in demand among baby boomers.
The baby boomer generation has become the most active of any other in that age group, which has led the boomers to become the fastest-growing group to undergo joint replacements. Knee replacement surgeries have doubled over the past decade, and more than tripled in women between the ages of 45 and 64.
But PRP injections have offered many boomers a chance to extend their active years without pain.
"I'm really excited about this treatment and I love it," said Dr. Lilia Gorodinsky, an internal medicine doctor who says many boomer patients have come to her clinic asking for the treatment. "It's like giving people their life back."
But many experts say PRP injections are no proven substitute for surgery. There is only limited scientific data to suggest that it really works to treat as many joint problems as it is currently used for. Some claims suggest plasma injections can stop arthritis progression, and even create new cartilage.
"This is certainly, potentially one treatment option that may be utilized, but it's not the magic bullet," said Dr. Laith Jazrawi, chief of sports medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center. "To offer these things to patients and potentially tell them that we may have the treatment that may prevent you from getting a knee replacement is really silly."
PRP injections are more often given to treat chronic arthritis. Jazrawi, who offers PRP injections in his office, says PRP should not be the first-line treatment recommended for baby boomer patients. Instead, he advises them to maintain an active and healthy lifestyle and diet.
"We always have to be careful about applying a new technology in a haphazard way because we hope that it may be the answer or the solution to our problems," said Jazrawi.