Prolotherapy helps members get pain relief and avoid surgery

Michael Miller

Samaritan Ministries member Paul McLellan was dealing with pain.

Again.

Years before, it had been in his jaw. This time it was in his back and neck.

“There was significant damage to my back and spine,” says Paul, who lives in Minnesota.

So he returned to a treatment that had worked well for him before—prolotherapy.

Specifically, Paul went back to Dr. Mark Wheaton, a pain and sports medicine specialist in the Twin Cities and fellow Samaritan member who had helped him with his jaw years before with prolotherapy, which the physician calls “a natural injection technique that stimulates the body to repair itself from injury or from joint laxity.”

It’s also an inexpensive alternative to more invasive surgery.

The solutions, usually dextrose, glucose, calcium, zinc, or other natural substances, cause a mild inflammation in the injection area. No drugs or cortisone is used in prolotherapy. The inflammation attracts cells called fibroblasts, which in turn secrete collagen, which in turn rebuilds ligaments and tendons and even helps preserve cartilage. Dr. Wheaton says that this essentially replicates the body’s natural wound healing process, which had been incomplete and caused chronic pain.

During treatment, the treated joint or area is quickly “peppered” with “a relatively slender needle in under two minutes,” Dr. Wheaton says.

There are three phases to healing through prolotherapy:

  • The inflammatory phase. Dr. Wheaton uses his thumb “to probe the joint tissues for tenderness or laxity” then “peppers” the tissues with several quick injections per session. The session is typically brief, usually a few minutes, and resulting soreness and stiffness dissipates over a few days.
  • The fibroblastic phase. Growth of collagen tissue takes over where the inflammation left off for about two to three months, creating stronger ligament attachments. That allows the tendons and ligaments to do the work they’re supposed to do, relieving local muscle spasm and compensation and increasing blood flow.
  • The maturation phase. A protracted maturation phase that can take up to a year and a half. New blood vessels mature, tissue is strengthened, and pain subsides.

Asked to name the conditions it benefits, Dr. Wheaton had to take a deep breath.

It takes what you’ve got and structurally makes it better.

Dr. Mark Wheaton

He listed chronic neck pain, headaches, whiplash, migraines, TMJ pain, dislocated or loose shoulders, rotator cuff damage, typical “wear-and-tear” arthritis in the joints, lower back problems, various disc injuries, sciatica, loose or slipped ribs, golfer’s elbow, tennis elbow, sprains and strains, loose wrist joints, carpal tunnel syndrome, small joint (knuckle) pain of the fingers and toes, plantar fasciitis, ankle injuries, knee and hip pain, ligament damage and weakness, and more. “Many sizes and kinds of meniscal tears, rotator cuff tears, and herniated discs can be helped,” he says.

Similar to other medical treatments, though, Dr. Wheaton acknowledges that the “prolotherapy batting average is not perfect.”

“Nine out of 10 have good to excellent results,” he says.

While Dr. Wheaton also understands that sometimes surgery is unavoidable, he encourages those in chronic pain to seek other routes first that are healthy alternatives and less invasive.

“The downtime after surgery is usually longer than advertised,” he says. “People can’t afford to be off work for six weeks to three months or even longer. You also need to consider the fact that if you have back surgery you are going down a road you can’t come back from. You could be facing multiple surgeries, with more and more scar tissue. Cutting and removing tissue causes more instability. Would you rather have things taken out or fused, or would you like to keep your original parts as long as possible, which is what prolotherapy does? It takes what you’ve got and structurally makes it better.”

Prolotherapy is also better than cortisone shots, which are used to relieve joint pain, Dr. Wheaton says.

“Cortisone is extremely damaging to cartilage tissue, soft tissues, and any joint it’s injected into,” he says. “At best it can give temporary relief by masking it, but it always damages the joints. I quit using it over 20 years ago. And taking drugs for pain inevitably results in side effects.”

There’s typically joint stiffness or soreness for one to three days after a prolotherapy session, “but not severe pain,” Dr. Wheaton says. Patients drive themselves to the appointment and back home within minutes after their prolotherapy treatment is over.

He also says that prolotherapy is low-risk.

“I have to remind myself to tell people there is a risk, that anytime a needle is used, there is a remote chance of infection or bleeding, but it’s rare, which is why I can do prolotherapy at my stand-alone clinic away from large medical facilities,” Dr. Wheaton says.

Only physicians are licensed to do injection procedures such as prolotherapy.

Prolotherapy is also a lot more affordable than surgery, he points out. Dr. Wheaton charges per joint. A typical cost is about $280-$350 per joint or area per visit. One of the reasons for the low expense is that he is able to keep overhead to a minimum due to the simplicity of the procedure, natural, low-cost substances, and low overhead. He has one part-time employee and his wife, Gina, is office manager and also a registered nurse.

The treatment has helped the active Paul McLellan keep up with his six sons and two daughters.

“I want to be an active participant in their lives,” he says. That includes playing catch, shooting hoops, hiking.

But, of course, at 40 his body doesn’t recover as quickly as it used to. He says he returns to Lakeside for occasional “tune-ups” when he’s starting to feel pain, but, in general, prolotherapy has given him his “life back.”

A jaw injury 18 years ago from water tubing left the owner of LightBulbs.com in pain and barely able to talk. He heard about prolotherapy from a jaw specialist and visited Dr. Wheaton.

“I experienced significant relief from that injury,” Paul says.

Years later, after what Paul called “aggressive” chiropractic treatment, he had to go see Dr. Wheaton again for pain relief. By that time, Paul was a Samaritan member, and had been happy to discover that prolotherapy could be shared even though insurance doesn’t typically cover it. The Ministry Guidelines allow for up to 40 therapy visits to be shared as long as it’s done by a licensed provider. He mentioned that to Dr. Wheaton, who was impressed enough that he considered Samaritan Ministries for his family. They’re now members as well.

Seth Rhoden, a Samaritan member from South Dakota, also has experienced pain relief for his shoulder from prolotherapy. He started driving the 500 miles with his parents to Dr. Wheaton’s office when shoulder surgery was ruled out for him because of the possibility of having an epileptic seizure during the operation. Seth, who works on his parents’ cattle ranch in the Black Hills, has grand mal seizures, which in turn aggravate his bad shoulder.

His mother, Sylvia Rhoden, was told about prolotherapy, and they contacted Dr. Wheaton.

It took about eight injection sessions spaced out by a few weeks each, but the pain in Seth’s shoulder, neck, and jaw, aggravated by his seizures, started decreasing.

Now ranch work, like carrying food for calves or holding them down for branding, or other tasks like shoveling snow, doesn’t hurt his shoulder, he says, although the seizures can still result in pain.

Seth says he didn’t care for getting the shots “right at the moment, but it was worth the effort.” 

This article is for educational purposes only and not meant as medical advice.

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