Avoiding Surgery With Stem Cells

By Brad Hubbard | @bradhubbard


A headline a few days ago caught my eye. It was how Los Angeles Angels pitcher Garrett Richards was shut down for the year with tear in his UCL and was undergoing stem cell therapy as opposed to Tommy John surgery. What? Come again? Turns out that he isn’t the first pitcher to try this. Not even the first on his own team!

Garrett RichardsAfter a quick search I found an article by the Los Angeles Times Pedro Moura. He wrote about the stem cell treatment being undergone by Richards and his teammate Andrew Heaney. Essentially, the doctors are taking stem cells from the bone marrow and injecting it into the affected elbow. The idea is that the body will heal itself and you can avoid a surgery that could put a pitcher out for a year or more.

A lot of questions come up with this. The most important is ‘how do you know it worked?’ If it didn’t and the pitcher has to have surgery anyway and that delays their return even more.

That’s not even the crazy part.

According to the article, the stem cells can have human growth hormone (HGH) add to them to speed up the healing process. HGH of course is outlawed by every sports league and by the FDA. So it’s ok to remove a healthy tendon from another part of the body (opposite arm or leg) or even take one from a cadaver to replace the torn tendon, but it’s illegal to boost the cells taken from your own body to heal the torn tendon without surgery.

Something seems amiss here.

There is a growing concern that kids are pitching too much and are requiring Tommy John surgery earlier and earlier to the point that some are calling it an ‘epidemic‘. Non-surgical options are not just needed, they are to the point of being required.

I recommend reading Moura’s article and draw your own opinion. The fact that stem cell therapy is already taking place at this level and there is a chance that a pitcher can opt to not have surgery leaves one to believe that this topic isn’t going to go away anytime soon. If HGH can speed up the healing process and allow a pitcher to not have to have surgery than perhaps this should be looked at by the FDA and major league baseball a little bit more.

The other Tommy John question.

The Washington Nationals famously shut down their pitching ace Stephen Strasburgh. The Nationals announced they were shutting him down earlier in the season because of the Tommy John surgery he’s still recovering from and since then there has been a whole lot of noise about whether it’s right or wrong. However, not a lot of people are talking about Kris Medlen’s comeback or what the San Francisco Giants are going to do about closer Brian Wilson.

Medlen is gaining a lot of exposure about how the Atlanta Braves rehabbed him and how well he’s doing. In fact the Braves have now won the last 20 games in which he has started. Another big question out there is how will the Giants treat their All-Star closer Brian Wilson when he’s ready to comeback?

Wilson, aka Fear the Beard, aka Willie, has had Tommy John surgery before. It was done back when he was at LSU. So unlike Strasburgh and Medlen, Wilson is older and having to do this for a second time. Unlike Strasburgh and Medlan, Wilson is a closer and only pitches an inning or an inning and a half so the Giants don’t have to have to rehab him like a starter. They don’t have to worry about him being able to pitch six or seven innings like the Nationals and Braves did with their pitchers.

Wilson is also a veteran. He’s won a World Series. He’s been to a few All-Star games but he’s also 30. That last point alone begs the question, ‘will he be able to recover like these younger pitchers?’ The surgery Wilson, Strasburgh and Medlan had is named after the pitcher who first had the surgery, Tommy John. John had the experimental surgery at the age of 31 and pitched until the age of 46. If your a Giants fan that’s good news. However John had the surgery once not twice by that age.

Baseball is a physical sport. It’s a marathon and probably more physically demanding for pitchers. The overhand throwing motion is not a natural motion for the human body. While it’s amazing science to have a tendon replaced it’s probably even more amazing to return to throwing a baseball at high velocity in front of thousands of people.

What this really comes down to is the pitchers state of mind. If Wilson can stay positive and overcome the mental rigors of rehab then Giants fans have reason to hope. If for some reason he can’t then the Giants may have to find a longer term solution to closing baseball games than Sergio Romo and Javier Lopez.