Blood may not be the sexiest topic but your own blood may be the secret to health and vitality.
Sound bizarre? Think again. Here in the realm of naturopathic medicine, we live by the tenet that our bodies are built to heal themselves. Proof of this emerges in myriad ways, from scabs that eventually form fresh skin to an (albeit exasperating) itch—a sure sign that blood is moving towards a wound in the name of healing. Overall, the human body is a miraculous creation, designed for curing itself and tremendous resilience.
And we can harness this power even more by using platelet-rich plasma. The therapy, widely known as PRP, utilizes injections of a patient’s own blood to jumpstart the healing process and rejuvenate specific areas of concern. First discovered in the 1970s in the field of hematology, PRP began to be used a decade later, initially in maxillofacial surgery before moving into a variety of medical procedures, including cardiac surgery, gynecology, oral surgery and ophthalmology.
But what, exactly, is PRP—and how does it work?
In PRP, a small amount of blood (30-60 milligrams, or two to four tablespoons) is drawn from the patient and placed into a centrifuge. As the blood spins at a very fast rate, red blood cells are separated from plasma (the clear liquid that transports blood throughout the body) and platelets. The removal of red blood cells leaves us with platelet-rich plasma—plasma so rich in platelets, in fact, that it contains 10 times as much as whole blood. In PRP therapy, the platelet-rich plasma is either injected into the region of the patient’s body that requires treatment, applied topically or administered through microneedling—a minimally-invasive procedure in which ultra-fine needles are inserted into the skin.
So what does this platelet-rich plasma do? Plenty. Platelets play a variety of roles in your body, from encouraging blood to clot to encouraging wounds to heal—or, as the National Institutes of Health frames it, they’re on “continual ‘call of duty’ because inside of them lies one of the most powerful reservoirs of factors responsible for tissue repair.” This is thanks to the fact that they’re jam-packed with properties that aid in regeneration, including platelet-derived growth factor, transforming-growth factor B, fibroblast activation, insulin-like growth factor, epidermal growth factor and cytokines—cell-signaling proteins that impact immunity and inflammation (among other functions). Ultimately, platelets affect the stem cells in our tissues and stimulate them to produce whatever they’re programmed to make—whether it’s cartilage, connective tissue, elastin or hair.
As expected, the applications of PRP are broad and exciting, offering the potential of tissue regeneration in everything from sexual wellness to orthopedics. Here’s a closer look at how PRP has helped others—and how it might one day help you.
Kari, a 68-year-old woman, arrived at my office suffering from chronic ankle and knee pain, which had been plaguing her since a motor vehicle accident 18 years earlier—a truck hit her as she was standing outside her car while looking in her purse. It dragged her 15 feet and caused multiple ligament tears, broken bones and contusions. I treated her joints with PRP three times, with each session one month apart.
I was confident Kari would benefit enormously from these sessions and I was right. By the end of our time together, she reported an increased range of motion and radically-reduced pain. The science is there, too. Therapeutic PRP injections for joints, ligaments and tendons have been studied extensively, and show particular promise in the arena of cartilage repair.
Indeed, PRP can be an absolute windfall for those suffering from osteoarthritis, a form of arthritis that affects 27 million Americans. It can be due to wear and tear of the joint or, as in the case of Kari, from trauma. When cartilage breaks down inside a joint—whether it’s from a car accident, heredity, obesity or another cause—it can cause pain, swelling, inflammation and a limited range of motion. PRP has the capacity to aid in this by fueling new cartilage production. It can also help repair chronically-inflamed tendons and partially-torn ligaments. In some cases—including Kari’s—patients can forgo surgery after receiving PRP injections.
My esteemed associate, naturopath and acupuncturist Dr. Kristen Coles, has had three patients with severe dry eye disease. Otherwise known as dry eye syndrome, the malady is marked by a chronic lack of sufficient lubrication and moisture, the results of which manifest as constant irritation, inflammation and even scarring.
For Bree—who had severe dry eye disease secondary to Graves’ ophthalmopathy—Dr. Coles recommended one PRP drop per eye, once a day, for eight weeks. Bree began to experience relief nearly immediately—as in, within the first two weeks of treatment. At the end of her regimen, her ophthalmologist noted that she had increased moisture in her eyes.
Another patient, a woman named Leila, developed dry eye disease as a result of rheumatoid arthritis. Following 10 days of treatment, which consisted of one drop per eye once a day, Leila was able to wear mascara for the first time in 10 years.
Finally, there was Alexandria, whose symptoms stemmed from an unknown cause. After six weeks of PRP treatment—again, one drop per eye per day—Alexandria’s dry eye syndrome was completely resolved.
Why do I mention all of these cases here? To underscore the prodigious benefits PRP has in ophthalmology. Dr. Coles’ patients, of course, aren’t alone. A 2017 study published in Ophthalmology Therapy evaluated the topical use of PRP in 368 patients with dry eye syndrome. The results were startling—and fantastic. After six weeks of treatment, symptoms improved in 322 cases. The authors stated that PRP is an “effective treatment to improve signs and symptoms in patients suffering from moderate-to-severe chronic dry eye syndrome.” Another 2017 study, this one published in the Journal of Ophthalmology, demonstrated that PRP can mend dry eye syndrome post-LASIK surgery. In short, PRP may be a godsend for anyone suffering from the debilitating side effects of severe dry eye disease.
Sexual Wellness and Gynecology
Menopause often arrives with a series of symptoms that can dramatically affect a woman’s sex life. Such was the case with Stella, who, at 57, was suffering not only from vaginal dryness but also incontinence and “reduced” sexual sensation. Following a PRP treatment—affectionately known as an O-Shot® (as developed by Charles Runels MD)—her libido was revived and her orgasms were “better than ever.”
Hers was far from an isolated case. One of PRP’s biggest claims to fame is the impact it can have on one’s sexual health. During these sessions, PRP is injected into the intimate areas of women and men (in which case, they’re called “P” shots.) In men, PRP is injected into the shaft of the penis to support girth and enhance sexual sensation, and in women it is injected into the vulva and the area around the urethra to decrease urinary incontinence and to also enrich sexual pleasure.
Sound painful? Don’t despair! A patient is prepped with a numbing cream and given a nerve block that prevents pain. Indeed, the most “painful” part is the idea of having any kind of injection “down there.” But I can assure you, if it’s done right, it doesn’t hurt—and the results can be nothing short of rejuvenating.
I have been doing PRP injections for sexual wellness primarily on women and, in fact, “rejuvenated” is the most frequent feedback I receive. Every woman I have treated—from post-menopausal women to a 30-year-old who wanted to boost her sexual enjoyment—has reported positive effects, from increased sensation to greater vaginal lubrication. With data showing that more than 40% of sexually active women experience some degree of sexual dysfunction in their lives, PRP can be a vital adjunct to supporting sexual wellness.
This is thanks, again, to PRP’s rich concentration of important growth factors, which can help invigorate the nerves, muscles, connective tissues and blood vessels of the lower pelvic floor (including the clitoris, urethra, vulva, and vaginal wall). Because of the structural support that PRP provides, many women also report resolution of their stress and urge incontinence after a PRP treatment. Mary, for example, was experiencing incontinence so frequently she was considering surgery. After a single PRP treatment, her symptoms became a thing of the past.
And it isn’t only sexual wellness that may result from PRP therapy. In a 2018 study published in Case Reports in Women’s Health, PRP was found to restore tissue histologically (that is, on a microscopic level) in a case of Lichen sclerosus (a rare skin condition that typically affects the genitals) in a 38-year-old premenopausal woman. PRP might also help women with uterine prolapse. What’s more, given that the treatment is derived from a woman’s own body, authors of a 2017 study argued that there is no risk of a reaction to foreign bodies. (To which we women say, hallelujah!)
Aside from the distinction PRP has earned in the world of sports medicine—Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant and Reggie Jackson are just a few of its fans—PRP’s utmost renown may be in the field of aesthetics. The technique for a PRP facial utilizes either the relatively pain-free (and aforementioned) microneedling or it can be injected. In some cases, the PRP is applied simultaneously with a facial filler, applied directly to the problem with a syringe, or smeared on following microdermabrasion or a laser treatment. The end results, meanwhile, can be downright dramatic.
As Mona Gohara, MD, puts it, “PRP theoretically acts as a matrix that promotes collagen production, parlaying into softer wrinkles, firmer skin, more hair and, in some endorsements, lifted breasts.” Numerous studies published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology confirm this. The data also demonstrates that PRP can significantly reduce the appearance of brown spots, diminish wrinkles, increase skin firmness and, overall, have a “significant, reproducible, positive impact on biological facial rejuvenation.” PRP can also be used to offer volume to cheekbones and nasolabial folds.
Following a PRP procedure, your cells will continue to regenerate for three to six months, with the effects lasting up to a year. It’s a swell side effect (and deal), considering that my 65-year-old patient Shauna claimed a series of facial PRP treatments took 10 years off of her face—and she was just one of many patients who saw a major transformation.
Once-a-year treatments are recommended to maintain healthy collagen production. If a woman is older, she may choose to do a series of six treatments one month apart. It is about creating and maintaining healthy, vibrant-looking skin, and supporting collagen, which, as we age, tends to break down.
As for that above-mentioned “more hair?” Yes. PRP is making waves—literally—in the domain of hair regrowth. Again, this comes down to the growth factors it boasts, which, when inserted into the scalp, can activate hair follicles and foster hair regrowth. According to Neil Sadick, MD—a dermatologist in New York City and the director of the Sadick Research Group, studying and treating hair loss (an issue that affects 1 in 5 Americans, and can take a huge emotional toll on both men and women)—the use of PRP is “a great treatment option for hair loss because it has a number of scientifically based articles showing its efficacy in increasing hair count, hair thickness and the growth phase of the hair cycle.”
WHAT ABOUT COST?
You may be wondering about insurance coverage for PRP procedures. My practice does not take insurance and so I never considered the question, but I doubt that it currently is. And PRP procedures can be expensive. For example, treating one joint in my office using a 30mL kit costs $550…a 60mL kit costs around $650. The facial PRP cost is about $650 per treatment. Cost for the O shot is $1,200. But prices vary depending on where you live (most doctors on the mainland charge more than we do).
Yet these costs may not sound so high when you consider the magical results that PRP treatments can yield. Dr. Andrew Weil was right when he said that our own bodies are our best hope for recovery—and we can experience this, profoundly, with PRP therapy.
To learn more, visit Dr. Laurie Steelsmith’s website, https://drsteelsmith.com, or click her to read her most recent book, Growing Younger Every Day: The Three Essential Steps for Creating Youthful Hormone Balance at Any Age.