The Role of Stem Cells in the Treatment of Sports Injuries

A number of key players won’t be taking the field tonight in the first game of the NFL season, or even all season, due to sports-related injuries. Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson is out for the season with a torn ACL he got during a pre-season game. Imagine if stem cell treatment could shorten the recovery period for a torn ACL or meniscus tear.

There has been a lot of buzz around—and a number of athletes who have undergone—stem cell treatments for athletic injuries.  With umbilical cord blood and umbilical cord tissue being a readily available source of stem cells, and an alternative to bone marrow stem cells, the question arises: could cord blood stem cells stored today in cord blood banks, one day be used to treat sports related injuries?

Why stem cells?

Stem cells are responsible for the development and regeneration of tissues and organs. Stem cells can be found in adipose (fat tissue), peripheral blood, bone marrow, umbilical cord blood and umbilical cord tissue. Umbilical cord tissue is a rich source of mesenchymal stem cells and they are already being researched to treat tissue injuries and degenerative diseases.

In its infancy but growing at a rapid clip

According to research published in May in The Journal of Arthroscopic and Related Surgery[i], the use of cell-based treatments in sports medicine has expanded in recent years and the use of stem cell therapies for the treatment of orthopedic injuries continues to advance. The goal of stem cell treatments in this arena is to help repair and possibly regenerate various tissues such as tendon, cartilage and muscle. Clinical studies have shown positive outcomes, although more such trials are needed to confirm the safety and efficacy of these treatments.

Stem cell therapy uses primarily mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) for treatment. Mesenchymal stem cells have many unique functions including the ability to inhibit inflammation following tissue damage, to secrete growth factors that aid in tissue repair, and to differentiate into many cell types including neural cells, bone cells, fat cells and cartilage. Umbilical cord tissue contains a rich source of mesenchymal stem cells. MSCs are increasingly being utilized in regenerative medicine for a wide range of conditions including heart and kidney disease, ALS, wound healing and autoimmune diseases.

Cell-based therapy for cartilage, meniscus and knee tendon repair

  • Many tissue-engineering techniques applied to small animal models have shown promise with respect to preserving the meniscus.
  • Another study directed toward the elderly evaluated outcomes when stem cells derived from bone marrow were used to treat fractures involving the bone (and the overlaying cartilage) of the ankle joint.
  • Joint injections of MSCs (bone marrow derived) showed improvement in cartilage repair.
  • Mesenchymal stem cells are being used to treat damage to the Achilles tendon
Cord blood stem cells have a number of significant advantages over bone marrow and therefore represent a potential source of stem cells for treatment of sports injuries in the future. They are far easier to collect than bone marrow stem cells and more tolerant of tissue mismatches.


Clearly, the use of stem cell treatments in sports medicine is set to increase. “As research at the cellular level continues to expand, the opportunity for growth is limitless, with cell based applications and tissue engineering potentially setting the stage for how sports medicine is practiced today and in the future.”[ii] This may not be in time to help the players on the NFL injured reserve list this season, but there is great potential for stem cell treatments to make a meaningful impact on sports related injuries in the future.

Let the Games Begin!
[i] Hogan, Macalus V., Garth N. Walker, Liang Richard Cui, Freddie H. Fu, and Johnny Huard. "The Role of Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering in Orthopaedic Sports Medicine: Current Evidence and Future Directions." Arthroscopy: The Journal of Arthroscopic & Related Surgery 31.5 (2015): 1017-021. Web. 10 Sept. 2015.
[ii] Ibid

Last Updated on: 10/03/2023 by Diane Paradise