We will often see patients who have lingering elbow pain. They continue to receive and remedy themselves with traditional “conservative” treatments that include resting, icing, anti-inflammatory medications, Kinesio tape and various other health care provided treatments including physical therapy, massage, cortisone injections and even acupuncture. While some will respond to these treatments the patients who come into our office have not. They have been scheduled for one of the many surgical procedures often suggested for treatment of lateral epicondylitis. Most will be recommended to a debridement, the removal of tissue “too far gone,” to be saved. For many, removing tissue may not be their optimal way way to go. These people will reach out to us to discuss the realistic surgical alternatives we can offer. In this report we will discuss PRP and stem cell treatments as well as look at some new research on tennis elbow surgery.
Tennis elbow in office workers and laborers
There is a great probability that the people reading this article have been diagnosed with tennis elbow that have never played tennis in their life. We have seen patients with tennis elbow who were carpenters, rock climbers, office workers, landscapers, golfers, and more. Many never having picked up a racquet.
- Tennis Elbow (lateral epicondylitis) is a term for severe elbow tendonitis, or an inflammation, soreness, or pain on the outside (lateral) part of the upper arm near the elbow.
- The cause is usually common extensor tendinosis or a partial tear in the tendon fibers, which connect muscle to the bone. The traditional term tendinitis refers to the acute (recent) inflammatory stage of tendon injury, while the new term, tendinosis refers to the chronic injury when inflammatory cells are no longer seen, but the tendon is worn.
- Symptoms include elbow pain that gradually worsens and radiates outside of the elbow to the forearm and to the back of the hand.
While many of these people have never picked up a racquet, they usually have picked up a shopping cart filled with elbow tapes, braces, and sleeves that they hope will help them.
Patients with tennis elbow may not respond to the conventional treatments of “wait, rest, and medicate for pain relief.” For many patients, this slow track to healing is not on their schedule. Most patients prefer getting on with their lives by fast-forwarding the healing process. So they try many things. Some work. Some don’t.
Why tape, sleeves and physical therapy did not help your elbow.
Some people find great comfort in taping up their elbow or getting elbow sleeves. If it helps, then it is a good thing. For many however, sleeves, kinesiotaping, and ace bandages are not really helpful. Some people get great benefit from physical therapy.
A study from July 2019 (1) had three groups of people (10 in each group) with a new onset of elbow pain go to physical therapy. At the physical therapist’s they would receive treatment and taping.
- Ten patients received kinesiotaping plus exercises
- Ten patients received sham taping (Tape that would not help) plus exercises
- Ten patients received exercises only.
- “Kinesiotaping in addition to exercises is more effective than sham taping and exercises only in improving pain in daily activities and arm disability due to lateral epicondylitis.” In other words, this conservative care option of kinesiotaping did not fix the problem of the elbow degeneration.
But, despite this people still go online and buy expensive elbow braces. Why? As many patients say. “it gives me comfort.”
Cortisone, Kinesiotaping, Rest – According to one study – they are only short term relief remedies
A March 2021 study (2) compared early results of Kinesio tape as an alternative method for the treatment of lateral epicondylitis with those of corticosteroid injection and the rest-and-medication group. Among the fifty patients (53 elbows), Kinesio tape was applied to 20 patients (21 elbows), and corticosteroid injection was applied to 15 patients (17 elbows).
Fifteen patients were included in the rest-and-medication group. Patients in the rest-and-medication group were informed about their condition, and necessary warnings were given. No oral or topical treatments were recommended. If needed, paracetamol or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) were prescribed.
- Improvements in all (pain and function testing) scores were statistically significant in all groups at the end of the second week.
- At the end of the fourth week, there was also a statistically significant improvement in all three groups, but these improvements were not as high as they were in the first 2 weeks.
- There was a slight deterioration in the functional scores in the rest-and-medication group and corticosteroid injection groups, while the improvement in the Kinesio tape group continued.
- However, there was no significant difference between the Kinesio tape, the rest-and-medication group and the corticosteroid groups at the fourth week.
- Conclusions: Corticosteroid, Kinesio tape and rest-and-medication treatments were all effective in terms of pain reduction and functional scores at the end of week 2, and the only treatment that continued to be effective in the final week was Kinesio tape.
Headline: One type of tennis elbow surgery, with a track record of “excellent” results, is found to be no more effective than placebo or sham surgery
When conservative treatments do not respond, often a patient is suggested to surgery. In 2018, Australian surgeons made headlines when they published their study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine (3) comparing tennis elbow surgery to placebo surgery.
Here is what the research team wrote:
“A number of surgical techniques for managing tennis elbow have been described. One of the most frequently performed involves excising (shaving away) the affected portion of the extensor carpi radialis brevis (ECRB, a muscle of the forearm). The results of this technique, as well as most other described surgical techniques for this condition, have been reported as excellent, yet none have been compared with placebo surgery.”
When the surgery was compared to a sham surgery, the doctors concluded: “this study failed to show additional benefit of the surgical excision of the degenerative portion of the ECRB over placebo surgery for the management of chronic tennis elbow.” So the surgical removal of damaged tissue did not help the patient anymore than the conservative treatments. How about regenerative treatments?
PRP and stem cells for tennis elbow – are they realistic treatment options or not?
Platelet Rich Plasma therapy extracts the healing platelets from your blood and then re-injects the Platelet-Rich Plasma into the injured elbow. The research below from leading medical universities and research centers from around the world helps confirm our own observations of these treatments.
PRP injections vs. Cortisone
In December 2018 a multi-national team of doctors wrote in the journal Current reviews in musculoskeletal medicine (4) compared PRP treatments to cortisone for tennis elbow. They wrote that:
“The response to PRP seems to be favorable when compared to steroid injection for pain management and for patient-reported outcomes in lateral epicondylitis. PRP injection does not seem to have the potential complications associated with a steroid injection such as skin atrophy, discoloration, and secondary tendon tears.” They also noted that in comparison with extracorporeal shockwave, dry needling, or surgical treatments, (PRP injections in tennis elbow seems to be the best-studied intervention.”
- University researchers in India suggest Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) offers a better option for the treatment of lateral epicondylitis. In a comparison of PRP and cortisone injections, the doctors say PRP is a superior treatment option in the long-term. (5)
- A second study published in the Indian journal of orthopaedics compared single injection of platelet-rich plasma for tennis elbow as compared with single injections of triamcinolone (corticosteroid) and placebo (normal saline) over a short term period.
- Both the PRP and triamcinolone groups had better pain relief at 3 and 6 months as compared to normal saline group, but at 6 months followup, the PRP group had statistically significant better pain relief than triamcinolone group.
- In the triamcinolone group, 13 patients had injection site hypopigmentation (loss of skin color) and 3 patients had subdermal (skin and subdermal fat layer) atrophy. (6)
- In the journal The Physician and sports medicine, doctors found steroid could slightly relieve pain and significantly improve function of elbow in the short-term (2 to 4 weeks, 6 to 8 weeks). PRP appears to be more effective in relieving pain and improving function in the intermediate-term (12 weeks) and long-term (half year and one year). Considering the long-term effectiveness of PRP, the researchers recommend PRP as the preferred option for tennis elbow.(7)
- Doctors from teaching universities in Thailand examined injections of cortisone, autologous blood injection (simple blood injection) and PRP. What they found was the blood injection and the PRP injection provided superior results to cortisone for pain reduction and functional improvement. The autologous blood injection had a higher rate of site complication that was significant enough to note.(8)
- A November 2019 study compared the effectiveness of Platelet Rich Plasma injections versus autologous blood injection (blood without making it Platelet Rich), and cortisone. The findings were “PRP was associated with more improvement in pain intensity and 29 function in the long-term than the comparators.”(9)
Long term-benefit of PRP vs Cortisone
- Dutch researchers writing in the American Journal of Sports Therapies documented the positive effects of PRP on tennis elbow. Treatment of patients with PRP reduced elbow pain and increased function significantly, exceeding the effect of corticosteroid injection even after a follow-up of 2 years.”(10)
- British doctors agree – research in the British Journal of Sports Medicine says cortisone should never be used and that injections therapies including PRP can be effective and excellent long-term treatments for elbow pain.(11)
Most recently, a June 2021 study (12) also examined the current evidence for the effectiveness of platelet rich plasma (PRP) injections versus corticosteroid injections as treatment interventions for tennis elbow. In this systematic review the researchers examined previously published papers evaluating PRP vs. CS injections as treatment methods for LE. Two independent researchers searched and screened for articles that were systematic reviews that directly compared PRP to corticosteroid injections injections for tennis elbow. The results were: Corticosteroid injections were more efficacious for short-term pain relief, and PRP injections were more efficacious for long-term pain relief and improved function. PRP injections appear to be a more effective long-term treatment option than corticosteroid injections for those with tennis elbos who did not respond to conservative management.
Long term-benefit of PRP vs Physical Therapy
- In some of the more research reported in the surgical journal – Journal of Hand and Microsurgery (13) doctors reviewed and presented their evidence on the effectiveness of PRP injections. They found PRP injections have an important and effective role in the treatment of elbow instability. Here is what they wrote:
- The majority of sufferers recover within 1 year with conservative management which includes physical therapy. The most effective treatment for chronic lateral epicondylitis, however, is argued amongst experts.
- In the opinion of this study, after review of the literature, PRP injections have an important and effective role in the treatment of debilitating tennis elbow pathology, in cases where physical therapy has been unsuccessful.
- Previously, cases that persisted despite physical therapy have been treated with corticosteroid injections. Steroid injections are reported to give short-term pain relief, however the proven recurrence rates and complications (including dermal depigmentation, subcutaneous atrophy, and a theoretical risk of increased tendon rupture) should limit their use.
- PRP has been shown to provide a continuing long-term benefit in cases of chronic lateral epicondylosis, in the recent literature. It is superior to autologous blood injection injections and placebo/dry needling procedures.
PRP can eliminate the need for elbow surgery
A team of researchers in the United Kingdom wrote in the Journal of orthopaedics (14).
- “Our study adds to the evidence that PRP injection for intractable lateral epicondylitis of the elbow is an acceptable and useful treatment with improvement in symptoms in 56 out of 64 patients (87.5%). It adds to the literature in that we have tried to ascertain the effect of PRP on reducing the need for a complex, risk laden, surgical intervention. . .we consider PRP injection, for intractable lateral epicondylitis of the elbow, not only a safe but also very effective tool in reducing symptoms and have shown it has reduced the need for surgical intervention in this difficult cohort of patients.”
Chronic elbow instability causing tennis elbows in people with physically demanding jobs and frequency of cortisone injections.
A study published in January 2021 (15) can offer evidence that strengthening and tightening the ligaments and tendons of the elbow can help with elbow pain. This is what the study said:
“Instability can coexist and may be associated with refractory lateral epicondylitis. The risk factors of instability associated with refractory lateral epicondylitis are heavy labor and multiple steroid injections.”
This is what I see in my patients. A person comes in with a history of elbow pain. They go to a few doctors, get the traditional treatments and do not get pain alleviation. Mostly in part because they continue at a job that is considered “heavy labor.” So they go onto get a few cortisone injections to help them at their jobs. The cortisone injections over time has lead to a wearing down or thinning of the ligaments and tendons of the elbow causing instability. Your bones are floating around in a hypermobile, unstable state and are compressing and impinging on nerves and other soft tissue. This instability is what PRP and stem cell therapy can address. By stabilizing the elbow, the tennis elbow pain can now be managed.
Bone marrow derived stem cells for the treatment of tennis elbow
A study in the Journal of natural science, biology, and medicine (16) found that a bone marrow aspirate (containing plasma rich in growth factors and mesenchymal stem cells) injection was an effective treatment for tennis elbow.
Bone marrow aspirate injections contain plasma rich in growth factors and mesenchymal stem cells
In this research a total of 30 adult patients with previously untreated tennis elbow were administered a single injection of bone marrow aspirate (stem cells and platelets).
- This concentrate was made by centrifugation of iliac crest bone marrow aspirate.
- The researchers concluded: Treatment of tennis elbow patients with single injection of bone marrow aspirate showed a significant improvement in short to medium term follow-up. They suggest that in the future, such growth factors and/or stem cells based injection therapy can be developed as an alternative conservative treatment for patients of tennis elbow, especially who have failed non-operative treatment before surgical intervention is taken.
Let’s point out again bone marrow aspirate contains plasma rich in growth factors and mesenchymal stem cells. No separate PRP treatment was given.
More recently a 2018 study in the Journal of orthopaedics (17) commented on the above study:
“Bone marrow aspirate concentrate (BMAC) is an emerging, novel treatment for various bone and cartilage pathology and injury. Similar to other orthobiologic intra-articular injections like hyaluronic acid and PRP, BMAC gives patients the opportunity to restore the natural microenvironment of their damaged or diseased tissue. Bone marrow concentrate is commonly taken from pelvic bone, and contains mesenchymal and hematopoetic stem cells, platelets, growth factors, cytokines, and anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory cells. . . Further evaluating the efficacy of bone marrow injections, thirty patients who were untreated for Lateral Epicondylitis were evaluated with the Patient-rated Tennis Elbow Evaluation (PRTEE) prior to and following the treatment of a single administration of Iliac Bone Marrow Aspirate. – This concentrate, composed of iliac bone marrow aspirate. . . was effective in simplicity and safety, avoiding further complications as other modes of treatment. Evaluated at 2, 6, and 12 weeks after administration, these patients showed drastic improvement in the two week evaluations, thus showing the efficacy of this treatment’s recovery time. Although (the authors} explained the limitation of their study in long term treatment, they believe that this treatment, when paired with growth factor and other stem cell treatment, can be an effective alternative in lieu of surgery.”
Do you have questions? Ask Dr. Darrow
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Stem cell and PRP injections for musculoskeletal conditions are not FDA approved. We do not treat disease. We do not offer IV treatments. There are no guarantees that this treatment will help you. Prior to our treatment, seek advice from your medical physician. Neither Dr. Darrow, nor any associate, offer medical advice from this transmission. This information is offered for educational purposes only. The transmission of this information does not create a physician-patient relationship between you and Dr. Darrow or any associate. We do not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, usefulness or adequacy of any resource, information, product, or process available from this transmission. We cannot be responsible for the receipt of your email since spam filters and servers often block their receipt. If you have a medical issue, please call our office. If you have a medical emergency, please call 911.
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