Well Stories

I Tried an Experimental Treatment for Arthritis and It's Helping Me Run Without Knee Pain

August 28, 2017
woman running on a road in the desert
Courtesy of Loree Bolin

Osteoarthritis affects more than 30 million American adults. For some who have tried multiple treatments and still live in pain, platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections may be the answer. The treatment is considered experimental by insurance companies for use in the knee, but for Loree Bolin, they’re a game changer. Bolin, 62, is a nine-time IRONMAN triathlon finisher and relies on these injections to keep her running with osteoarthritis. This is her story, as told to Kristen Domonell.

I ran my first marathon when I was a dental student at the University of Washington in 1980. Since then, I’ve been hooked. I’ve had the opportunity to travel the world competing in IRONMAN triathlons—a race with a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon (26.22-mile) run—all around the world. I’m training for my 10th, the IRONMAN World Championship, in Kona, Hawaii in October. And I’ve shared my love of running and recreational sports with children in Tanzania through my non-profit, Health & Hope Foundation.

But it hasn’t always been a “run” in the park. I have genetic osteoarthritis in my knees, and the pain has been unbearable at times. It’s hard for me to pinpoint when exactly my discomfort started, but I can remember a nagging pain as far back as when my son, who is 28, was in middle school. Over the years, I tried physical therapy several different times, every different knee brace I could get my hands on and cortisone injections. But all of my tricks were no longer working.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came during a ski trip in 2012. There was perfect snow and I had to bail and go home because my knees hurt too badly. When you’re an athlete, to have to call it quits on a beautiful ski day is just terrible.

Choosing PRP Treatment

Doctors told me I could probably look forward to knee replacement surgery at some point in the future. But I wasn’t ready to proceed with that kind of step. I wanted to try something that was non-invasive and wouldn’t require a ton of recovery time. 

When I got home from that ski trip I started researching treatments and came across platelet-rich plasma therapy, which a friend told me was being offered at the UW Medicine Sports Medicine Center at Husky Stadium. I get the injections twice a year, and after only one day of downtime, it’s like running on new knees.
 
PRP injections don’t come without a hefty out-of-pocket cost. Since the treatment is considered experimental, it’s not covered by my insurance. And while I admit $600 per knee is expensive, it’s worth it to me for the quality it adds to my life.

How Does PRP Treatment Work?

  • A small amount of blood is drawn and run through a machine that separates the platelets. The result is a concentrated formula that is injected back into the knee.
  • The platelets are believed to bind to the lining of the knee joint and produce lubricants, which halts some of the breakdown from occurring and increases comfort.
  • While it doesn’t help to repair the damage that’s already done—or work for everyone with knee osteoarthritis—research suggests that PRP injections may be a longer-lasting and more effective treatment for pain relief and improved function than other options.

Living Life Pain-Free

Before I started getting the PRP injections I was always waiting for my knees to hurt. I constantly had to fuss over my knees during runs, stopping in the middle to stretch. My running gait changed to accommodate the pain, and I was starting to feel the compensation affect my shoulders, ankles and hips. There’s no better word to describe the feeling of running pain-free than “liberating.” It has taken such a weight off.

I’ve been told many times, by very responsible healthcare providers, that I shouldn’t run anymore if I want to continue walking. Frankly, looking at X-rays of my knees, I think any provider would be remiss if they didn’t tell me that. And I understand those risks. But running is what lights me up. It’s my meditative space. I enjoy running with friends, of course, but I also just love to get out on the trails and run by myself. Sometimes, I save something I really need to put some thought into and I take it for a run to sort through it. 

As long as there’s a treatment available to help me keep running, I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.