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Experimental Medicines for Athletes May Not be Just at the Professional Level

Athletes are only as effective as they are healthy, and as the years pile up, good health becomes harder and harder to maintain. The games quickly add up, and the human body can accumulate only so much mileage before beginning to break down. Some of the worst injuries are the ones that simply won’t go away. Even after multiple operations, the soreness persists, and in some cases, careers will prematurely end. Yao Ming is a recent example of what injuries can do to a promising career. His nonstop lower body issues, including a stress fracture in his left foot, caused him to miss about the same number of games he played in over the last 5 years of his career. Eventually, at the age of 30, he retired after only nine years in the NBA. By comparison, Jason Kidd just finished his 17th NBA season by winning the NBA title, at the age of 38.

Not all athletes are blessed with longevity similar to Kidd’s. Even superstars are vulnerable. Just look at Kobe Bryant, one the most successful active players in the league. For the past few seasons, arthritis plagued his right knee, almost to the extent that his knee movement was “bone-on-bone.” Despite multiple surgeries, his pain persisted. With few other options, Bryant elected to stray off the beaten path of typical medical treatments. He chose to go to Germany to try an experimental, and some would say extreme, treatment, known as platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy. This procedure involves extracting blood from the patient’s arm, separating the platelets with a centrifuge, and then re-injecting them in the affected area. The prevailing wisdom behind this treatment is that platelets promote the growth of tissue and would help replace the lost cartilage. By injecting a large quantity of platelets into a confined area, an accelerated cell growth to occur would be expected. While some doctors question this treatment’s merits, it seems to have worked wonders for Bryant. He looks to have regained some of his old form, with more spring in his step and a higher tendency to jump and go for dunks. Perhaps he will add a few more championships to his already impressive resume before he finally retires.

In many sports, new experimental treatments have been gaining traction. When standard procedures fail to do the trick, players are often reluctant to end their careers early and would rather take a risk on an untested treatment. At the professional level, players find it extremely difficult to walk away, especially if it means losing money from sponsorship deals and contracts. For them–it’s not just for the love of a game–it’s also about making a living.

The risks of these operations, however, are not understated. They carry very real risks. Bryant could just as easily have caused irreparable damage to his right knee instead of helping it, and he might have never played another game of basketball. As they are now, these new experimental options are really “all or nothing.” You can’t agree to undergo one half-heartedly. Because of the high risks, it’s hard to imagine such drastic measures making their way into collegiate or high school athletics anytime soon. But it wouldn’t hurt to keep an eye on the progress of these new treatments. At some time in the future, those very same “risky,” “unsafe” procedures may get perfected, and become the new norm for athletes at all levels of competition.

Written by Andy Li’13


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