Excerpted from article by Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Roni Selig, CNN
For much of his professional golf career Jack Nicklaus has had aggravating back pain that he describes as an eight or nine out of 10 on the pain scale. While most golfers live with some degree of back pain Nicklaus said his was particularly debilitating. Despite trying therapies ranging from cortisone shots to a back operation the pain persisted. At the time he flew to Munich, Nicklaus was willing to try anything, even an, as of yet, unproven treatment.
Nicklaus, one of the true sports legends of the United States, has 120 professional tournament victories and a record 18 major-championship titles. He is one of 16 individuals in history to receive both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal for his outstanding achievements in sports and philanthropy.
Nicklaus said he has taken roughly 10 million swings with a golf club, but when you hear his backstory, it is a wonder his career ever happened. Even before he became a professional, Nicklaus was having severe enough back pain to warrant nine cortisone injections into his back. (These are done to insert medication between the joints to relieve inflammation and pain). He was only 19 years old at the time. While they worked for a short time, Nicklaus played with significant pain for parts of his career. At the age of 64, he underwent a minimally invasive spine operation to relieve the pressure on his spinal nerve roots, which provided some relief for much of the last 14 years, but not nearly enough. Even basic chip shots and putts were too painful.
In December of 2015 when Nicklaus met German stem cell pioneer Dr. Eckhard Alt. Intrigued by what Alt told him about this experimental therapy, 78 year old Nicklaus once again became a student, reading up on Eckhard, the clinic and the possibilities of stem cells. Within a couple of months, he was convinced adipose stem cells, found in abdominal fat, may be something that could finally provide lasting relief for his aching back.
Nicklaus received 10 injections in his back on each side of his lumbar spine, or lower back, and four in his cervical spine, or neck. While he didn’t feel “immediate relief,” he did notice that the pain he used to feel while actively playing golf had subsided after a few months.
According to the article’s authors, for this back pain there was no other option without side effects or risks. He could have taken oral anti-inflammatory medications daily with side-affects or continual cortisone injections but that would have only treated the symptoms. The other thing would be to stiffen up the back with screws and metals to stabilize but that has a high risk of complications. Alt said he advised Nicklaus that stem cells would be the lowest risk way of treating him, “by healing the tissue and decreasing the inflammation.”
The evidence to support Alt’s claims are still in progress, and further proof is expected from an FDA approved clinical trial at Sanford Health in the US. According to Alt, his longest term patients are now four years out from their therapy.
Why did Nicklaus keep this treatment a secret? “I didn’t keep it private, no one asked me about it,” he said. Adding, “I’m not a doctor, but I think that stem cell is going to change… the direction of orthopedics, totally.”
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