Big league pitchers look to stem cell therapy as alternative to surgery

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elbow-surgeryMajor League pitchers are throwing the ball harder than ever, with some regularly topping 100 miles an hour.

But that extra oomph has been taking a heavy toll on elbows. There’s been an explosion in the number of pitchers undergoing ligament-replacement surgery, from big leaguers all the way down to high schoolers. That procedure is called Tommy John surgery, in honor of the Dodgers’ player who was the first to have it done in LA back in 1974.

But now a possible alternative is emerging to Tommy John surgery: stem cell therapy. The treatment is unproven, but some doctors believe it has the potential to heal elbows in a fraction of the time that surgery entails.

A couple of injured Angels pitchers, Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney have been trying stem cell therapy. Heaney has now given up and decided that he will undergo surgery after all, but Richards is still following the non-surgical path. It’s a gamble, because if it doesn’t work Richards will still have to go under the knife, and he will have lost precious recovery time.

Los Angeles Times Angels beat writer Pedro Moura says more and more pitchers appear to be willing to take that risk.

“It’s a fairly simple process. It takes 20 minutes from start to finish. The pitchers get stem cells harvested from the bone marrow of their hips and then that is injected into the injured region of their elbow after it’s spun in a centrifuge for a limited amount of time, just to separate the cells,” Moura says. “(The cells) are so young that when they are inserted into the elbow, the idea is that they can morph into whatever they are near. If they are injected into the broken, ripped, partially torn ligament they can regenerate that. That’s the goal.”