Treating sports injuries with stem cell therapy, a procedure normally reserved for top athletes, is becoming more mainstream.

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning reportedly traveled to Europe a few years ago for stem-cell therapy to treat a neck injury when he was with the Colts, according to news reports. (Manning has not publicly acknowledged this). Hundreds of NFL players have used stem-cell therapy, which the NFL views as a medical treatment, not a steroid issue, according to a report in Sports Illustrated. The magazine noted how running back Chris Johnson had injured his knee and used stem cells to rebuild the cartilage.

Stem cells are the body’s main cells for repairing damaged tissue and reducing inflammation. They can divide and replenish cells damaged by disease, injury or normal wear.

While embryonic stem cells are controversial in the United States because they come from embryos, adult stem cells, which are found throughout the body, can be harvested from one’s own body or come from a donor, thereby eliminating the controversy.

Sports medicine physicians at Baptist Health South Florida and UHealth – University of Miami Health System are using adult stem cells to treat patients with sports injuries. The procedures are experimental and not covered by insurance.

“It had been a kind of taboo topic of sorts,” said Dr. Michael Swartzon, a sports medicine physician with Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute at Baptist Health South Florida. “How we obtain [stem cells] is regulated to avoid any appearance of trying to engineer better human beings.

“In sports medicine, we have a narrowed view of what we want them to do and that is to repair and reconstruct tissue, reduce pain and inflammation and increase speed of recovery.”

Stem cell is not the first treatment option.

Swartzon and other doctors try standard care first — usually physical therapy and medications that have a track record of success. But when those treatments don’t work or won’t work, surgery may be required.

Some patients who want to avoid surgery may be a candidate for stem-cell therapy. Swartzon has been handling about one stem-cell therapy case per month for the past six months.

In stem-cell therapy, adult stem cells are extracted from bone marrow. FDA regulations stipulate how and when the stem cells can be used.

Because the therapy is considered experimental, health insurance does not cover the treatments, which can run from $1,000 on up.

“I’m honest and explain to my patients that the data is being investigated,” Swartzon said. “So far, the data is pointing in a positive direction with nothing showing a downside. But I don’t know if it will be a long-term cure or how long the effects will last.

“So it’s up to the patient: Do you want to try something experimental? And do you have the disposable income to do it?”

At Baptist Health, Swartzon uses stem cells from a donor, which he injects into the area of injury. To use one’s own stem cells, the procedure is labor intensive and painful as the cells have to be harvested from the body.

“And especially in older adults, you are not sure how much stem cells you would be getting,” Swartzon said. “As we age, stem cells decline.”

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