Stem cell treatments for youth sports injuries: Ready for prime time?

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Stem cell treatments for youth sports injuries: Ready for prime time?

Clifton L. Page, M.D.  |  Aug. 25, 2017

If your child is an athlete and participates in sports, they may sustain an injury at some point. What do you tell your son or daughter after they have an injury that keeps them out of the sport they love? Thoughts of how long until they can return to play are filling their heads. How did their favorite sports heroes return to play so quickly? Today with rapid dissemination of information through social media and 140 characters, kids and parents have instant access to the latest and greatest trends in sports medicine injury treatment. 

Parents, coaches and young athletes ask sports medicine physicians which treatment allows the quickest return to sport. Over the last few years, we have seen an exponential increase in the interest of regenerative medicine, especially the use of mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) to assist athletes with returning to their sport quickly and safely after injury. Many parents or caregivers struggle to make an informed decision about the use of stem cells in injury recovery as these are newer, and less understood treatments.   

What is MSC? 
Mesenchymal stem cells are thought to accelerate the healing process for various musculoskeletal injuries such as torn ACLs. Studies have shown these cells have the capacity to form into specific types of cells, including bone, cartilage, muscle and ligament tissues. This specialization allows them to perform particular functions that may assist healing and repair at the precise site of injury. MSC cells are usually harvested from bone marrow or fat cells. Recent research suggests that MSC may provide a nonsurgical treatment option for conditions that affect muscle, tendons, ligaments and cartilage. 

This evidence, however, is limited in young athletes and based on a few, small, randomized clinical trials in adults. There have been reported benefits such as reduced pain and increased function in patients with osteoarthritis, especially after specific knee surgeries; however, it remains unclear whether these results would be similar in children or teens with sports injuries.  

Caution is needed when considering regenerative medicine in children and teens 
There has been an increase in the number of unregulated clinics advertising rapid recovery with use of stem cell therapies. These therapies may be marketed under names such as regenerative cells, healing cells or master cells. [Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) injections are a separate form of therapy, but the concepts are often confused.]  The American College of Sports Medicine urges patients and their families to exercise caution when considering these treatments. The hype surrounding stem cells makes them an exciting treatment option for many sports injuries. However, young athletes and their caregivers should be cautious in pursuing this as a first option for treatment. 

Despite the enormous potential, more studies are needed to determine their effectiveness in treating injuries and long-term safety among the pediatric athletic population. It is also important to note that often this treatment is not covered by insurance and can be very expensive. If more than one treatment is needed, the cost could skyrocket into thousands of dollars.


For a more in-depth look at regenerative medicine therapies in youth and teen sports injuries, we recommend this article from the May/June 2017 issue of Current Sports Medicine Reports.

Clifton L Page, M.D., CAQSM, is a Primary Care Sports Medicine specialist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in the Department of Orthopaedics and Family Medicine, Division of Sports Medicine. Dr. Page is in his eleventh year working with the University of Miami athletic teams as their team physician. Board certified in family medicine and sports medicine, Dr. Page's clinical interests include the non-operative care of sports-related injuries, especially tendinopathies, concussions, general medical conditions in the athlete, and sports injury prevention. Dr. Page received his undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1998, and earned his medical degree from The Ohio State University.