Doctors treat chronic knee pain with injections of patient's own blood

Margaret Halbert has no intention of slowing down, she still works full-time.

"I’m 73 and proud of it," said Halbert.

For more than a decade, however, Halbert had been dogged by crippling knee pain, especially in her right knee.

Then, about 4 years ago, she developed bursitis in her right hip.

"I was a walker my whole life," Halbert said. "That was always my exercise of choice. And, all of a sudden, it was very difficult to walk, not just with the knees, but with the hip problem."

She tried anti-inflammatory medication, supplements, knee injections, and said nothing helped.

Friends with the same issues were undergoing knee replacement surgeries.

"And I thought, I just don't want to go through that; I'm not ready for that, there's got to be a better way," she said.

The tipping point was a trip to Lake Tahoe with her two sisters. The plane ride was brutal, and her knees were killing her.

"I was having such difficulties and had to rest every few minutes," Halbert said. "They are both nurses, and they both said, ‘Do something now.'"

So, she came to see Emory Sports Medicine Physician Dr. Casey Wagner.

"I asked him if there was anything I could do other than taking pills and shots for the rest of my life, and he gave me two brochures to look at, and one was for the procedure called PRP," Halbert said.

PRP is platelet rich plasma therapy.

The procedure has been around for a little over a decade. As Wagner explained to Halbert, it involves using components of a patient's own blood to try to trigger healing in the knee joint.

A vial of Halbert's blood was spun through a centrifuge several times to separate out a type of plasma rich in healing growth factors known as platelet rich plasma.

"Once we have that, then usually under ultrasound, we'll inject it into the joint," Dr. Wagner says. "We'll use a local anesthetic. Everything is done in the office, and you go home. "

Then, Dr. Wagner said they waited about 12 weeks to see if the treatment worked.

"He said to me, 'You're going to hate me for two weeks because you are going to be in pain after this shot,' Halbert remembers. "Well, I woke up the next morning, hopped out of bed and I felt great. I had no pain at all. So a month later, I came back to do the same procedure for my left knee."

Most insurance companies do not cover PRP.

At Emory, Wagner said patients typically pay about $800 per knee, out of pocket.

It has been 11 months since her right knee was injected with PRP, 10 months since she had her left knee done.

"The real test was in October, when I had a ten-hour flight, and I was able to sit on that plane without having to squirm and move around," Halbert said. "That that told me how this procedure has helped me."

"I feel like I have new knees. I feel great. I feel great!"