The Morality Test of Platelet-Rich Plasma vs Corticosteroids
IMHO corticosteroid use in knee arthritis has become a giant medical morality test. We know the stuff is toxic, but physicians can’t help themselves from injecting it because it’s covered by insurance companies. Now that PRP is here and known to be effective, this sets up an interesting duality as there is now a better alternative that isn’t yet covered by insurance. So let’s review the data showing that PRP is superior to steroid shots and why this sets up an interesting test of your doctor’s ethics.
At Least Do No Harm
“If you can do no good, at least do no harm.” This statement is often attributed to the Hippocratic Oath and the Latin phrase “Primum non nocere” or “first do no harm”. While the idea was not in the actual oath, it was in other writings by Hippocrates. It also appeared in a book that was published in the mid-1800s about medical education (1). The idea is simple, it’s the doctor’s job to help protect the patient.
All medical care carries risk and managing that risk is essential. Hopefully, the benefits outweigh the risks, or at least the patient understands and accepts the risks and makes the choice to accept them. However, steroid shots present an interesting challenge to this sacred tenant of medicine.
Steroid Shots to Treat Pain are Really Bad for Patients
Doctors use steroids in medical treatment like priests use holy water. While there are clinical situations where they can be life-saving, their use to treat pain has grown increasingly controversial as our understanding of the nasty side effects has mounted:
- 3 days of oral steroid use results in an 80% increase in GI bleeds and a doubling of the heart failure and sepsis risk (2).
- More than 30 days of oral use results in a 5X risk for sepsis, 3X increase in the risk of blood clots, and 20X for fractures (3).
- These drugs both injure stem cells and cartilage cells, including documented loss of cartilage in the knee joint (4-6).
- There is an increased risk of infection in a knee or hip replacement or meniscectomy surgery when steroids are injected into that joint before the procedure (7-10).
- Inhaled steroid use in asthma is now associated with brain atrophy (11).
- Steroid injections in tendons reduce blood supply, injure tendon cells, and increase rotator cuff repair failure rates (12-14).
- Injections of steroids for pain worsen osteoporosis, cortisol levels, and blood sugar (15-17).
The Ethical Calculus Behind PRP
If all you had to offer the patient was a steroid shot and this usually worked to decrease the patient’s pain, as long as the patient understood the risks and accepted those, then a physician would be medically justified in providing this treatment. However, there are two problems with that statement:
- There is a better alternative
- Patients are almost never told the risks of getting the steroid shot
So let’s begin with the first concept, that PRP beats corticosteroids for a common problem like knee osteoarthritis.
PRP vs Corticosteroid for Knee Arthritis
There are a huge number of randomized controlled trials that have been performed with the final conclusion being that properly concentrated PRP works to help knee arthritis symptoms. This diagram is from the last analysis I did showing that the amount of data in the “Pro” PRP camp swamped any negative trial results due to low concentration fake “PRP”:
In addition, PRP has been compared head-to-head to steroid shots in the treatment of knee arthritis (18-23). In 4 of the 6 randomized controlled trials, PRP was superior to steroid at 6 months or more. In two RCTs it was equivalent. In addition, to date, no study has shown the same type of negative side effects for PRP that we know steroids exhibit.Join us for a free Regenexx webinar.
Is Using a Steroid Injection Over PRP a Violation of “First Do No Harm”?
If we stay on the use case of knee arthritis, here’s what we know:
- Steroids have serious and wide-reaching negative side effects
- PRP is superior to or at least as good as a steroid shot without any of these known side effects
Hence, IMHO offering a patient a steroid shot for knee arthritis and not offering PRP without a discussion of the possible side effects of the steroid violates the “first do no harm” rule. If that’s true, why does this happen thousands of times each day in the United States?
The Insurance Morality Test
Right now, outside of the Regenexx network and the companies that have decided to offer their employees PRP, there is no insurance coverage for PRP to treat knee arthritis. There is coverage to use a steroid injection. Hence, this becomes a morality test of sorts. Will a doctor take the time to offer the superior non-covered option? Will they explain the benefits and risks of both? If the patient chooses the steroid, will the doctor explain the risks of that choice?
Why are physicians still offering steroids? The biggest excuse I hear is “because it’s covered”. Or “my patients don’t want to hear about things their insurance won’t cover”. However, is that really true? With the average co-pay and deductible hitting thousands of dollars, they are in fact, paying cash for either the steroid injection or a PRP shot.
The upshot? IMHO data on steroids and PRP is such that we either need to have physicians stop offering steroid shots or at least use expanded informed consent when they do. It’s also time to stop using the excuse, “because it’s covered” and begin paying attention to “Primum non nocere”.
(1) Primum non nocere. (2021, October 30). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primum_non_nocere
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