I suppose we should have expected it. Every time there is a big sporting event stem cells seem to come into the conversation. So it’s not surprising that the World Cup in Brazil, the biggest sporting event on the planet, was bound to somehow, in some way, involve stem cells. And it has.
Argentina’s speedy attacker, Angel Di Maria, suffered a torn hamstring in the game against Belgium. He was initially ruled out for the rest of the tournament but then came news that he was hoping to be able to play in the final – if his team made it, which they have – by getting a stem cell therapy.
Now, as often happens in instances like this, the reports have been light on specifics although there are some hints in the media that it might involve the use of stem cells taken from Di Maria’s own fat tissue or from his blood.
The web site Inside Spanish Football mentioned that another player, Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa, underwent a similar procedure to try and recover from an injury before a recent championship game. The web site described it this way:
“The medical procedure is used to regenerate damaged cells using the patient’s own healthy cells, with the primary object being to reduce inflammation and repair the torn muscle tissue.”
Not surprisingly, because famous athletes are involved, the therapy is getting a lot of exposure in the media. The same thing occurred when Peyton Manning, the quarterback for another kind of football team, the Denver Broncos, got a stem cell treatment for a neck injury; and when Yankee’s baseball pitcher C. C. Sabathia underwent a stem cell treatment for a knee injury. We blogged about both of these instances.
The problem with the coverage is that the media typically does a good job of explaining what the therapy is designed to do, but then fails to mention that none of these therapies have been tested or proven to work in a clinical trial. It gives the impression that this is a routine therapy for an injury. It’s not. It is, in every sense, experimental. And therein lies the problem. While the treatment may be safe there’s also a chance it is not. While it may be effective to some extent, we really have no way of knowing.
Another confounding factor in all this is that alongside the stem cell therapy, Di Maria is also getting intensive traditional therapy – ice, kinesiology, electro pulse stimulation and some rehabilitation exercises in the swimming pool. So even if Di Maria does beat the odds and return in time for the World Cup Final, we really won’t know if it was the stem cells, the traditional therapy, or both that worked.
And that’s the real problem here. It’s not that a professional athlete is doing everything he can to be ready for the biggest game of his life – that’s to be expected – but that the media doesn’t dig a little deeper to see if there’s any evidence this approach could work. By failing to do that they leave the playing field open to other “clinics” to offer this same kind of therapy to anyone; clinics who will promote their treatment “as used by” and give the impression that if it helped Argentina win the World Cup, or at least come in second, then it can certainly help you bounce back from your injury.
So next time you read about a superstar athlete turning to stem cells for a miracle cure don’t assume that it will help them. The odds are it won’t. Sports are fun. But your health is nothing to play around with.
Before considering any stem cell treatment, we highly suggest looking at educational information for patients provided by the International Society for Stem Cell Research, the world’s leading stem cell research organization. Their printable, take-it-along Patient Handbook identifies questions any patient should ask. It would be a good idea to review answers with a physician you trust.