Did Steelers Blood Dope Before The Super Bowl?

A currently unregulated medical procedure done by a handful of athletes is being put under a little scrutiny. It’s a procedure that does exactly what Human Growth Hormone allegedly has done for MLB stars: it dramatically speeds up recovery from injury. And it’s a procedure that two Pittsburgh Steelers in particular apparently did two weeks before the Super Bowl.

hines ward steelers media day super bowl

(Hines Ward at the Super Bowl: Brought to you by PPT.)

According to a story in THE NEW YORK TIMES by Alan Schwarz, Steelers stars Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu both used a controversial procedure called Platelet-rich Plasma Therapy before last month’s Big Game. What does PPT do, you ask? Well, when the platelet-rich blood is re-injected into an injured region of the player’s body, it speeds up the healing process and, in some cases, may even allow them to avoid surgery.

So how is the result of PPT any different from the result of injured athletes taking HGH? It isn’t, except for the fact that it doesn’t come with the other growth side effects of HGH. It’s also entirely legal and, if its rampant spread throughout the professional and amateur ranks is any indication, it may soon be highly encouraged for any athletes who would otherwise be facing surgery.

“This could be a method to stimulate wound healing in areas that are not well-vascularized, like ligaments and tendons,” said Dr. Gerjo van Osch, a researcher in the department of orthopedics at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands. “I call it a growth-factor cocktail — that’s how I explain it.”

Insurance companies call it a lifesaver. Even though PPT is currently uneffective for some 20-40 percent of the cases in which it’s used, the procedure only costs about $2,000. Compare that with the $10,000 to $15,000 spent on a typical ligament surgery, not to mention the attending recovery from it, and you’re dealing with a relatively small risk for what could be a huge financial reward.

doctor looks at blood

(That’s platelet-rich blood in a photo for the NEW YORK TIMES.)

Still, there are serious ethical questions to be raised here, as EXAMINER.COM’s Sarah Shorno, she of occasional DEADSPIN fame points out. What’s the distinction between PPT and HGH? And why should we treat the re-injection of blood into an injured area any differently than the injection of additional blood, as cyclists do and are crucified for in the Tour de France, et. al?

Perhaps we shouldn’t. After all, both HGH and PPT involve injections. Both PPT and re-cicled blood involve boosting blood cell counts in one’s body via transferring one’s own blood.

Yet PPT will almost surely never be attacked the way HGH and EPO have been, for one simple reason: It saves patients a ton of money. Clearly, PPT is going to be prescribed to patients across the country with greater regularity in the coming years. That’s not going to stop, because there aren’t any illegal substances involved in the procedure. Because of that, the professional leagues would look almost ludicrous banning the procedure outright if it was deemed safe and appropriate for the rest of society.

So who’s going to stop the spread of PPT? No one. What Ward and Polamalu did before the Super Bowl was perfectly legal and ethical. And it’s sure to be used plenty of times in the coming baseball season: The Dodgers were able to get Takashi Saito fit for the playoffs last fall by using PPT to avoid elbow surgery. If it’s working for one team, others will almost always follow, and there’s no way this is any exception.