How Our Bodies Heal (excerpt from Play Forever)

We are in what I call the Anabolic Era of sports medicine. Instead of taking out tissues like torn meniscus cartilages and jamming in cortisone (which shuts down cell metabolism) we now replace and regrow the tissues, injecting growth factors, cytokines (recruitment factors), and lubrication to stimulate healing. 

Surfer Recovering from Arthritis

Stone Clinic patient Aaron U. surfing 20-foot waves after regenerative joint injections and articular cartilage paste graft surgery

To truly understand how anabolic therapies work, and why they are so exciting, it’s important to know how our bodies heal themselves. Biologic healing works like a well-coordinated football team. When all the players play their roles, supporting the team at the right times and in the right ways; when the indefinable chemistry is just right; when coaches provide proper encouragement; when preparation and fitness are ideal; that’s when winning—or healing—occurs. Without all of these factors in place, random events may still lead the team to victory. More likely, though, the result will be disorganized failure.

Injuries are like spontaneous game times. The injury occurs, and the call goes out to the team: Jump into action. At the moment of injury, multiple events occur simultaneously. The cells of the injured tissues leak their contents into surrounding tissues. These materials are chemotactic: They call other cells (progenitor cells derived from the body’s stem cells) and blood factors to the site of healing. First, the cells clean up and carry away the damaged tissues. Then they lay down new collagen, the backbone of all tissues in the body. Simultaneously, nerve endings in the tissues send signals to the brain, recording both the pain and the site of the injury. This provides directional information, prompting the body to protect the injury with strategies like limping, muscle contraction, and/or natural splinting of the area.

A process of healing—usually characterized by inflammation, tissue remodeling, and (eventually) scar formation—follows. The quality of the healing depends on the guidance and coaching of rehabilitation and exercise, along with physical, chemical, and hormonal influences.

All of these sequences occur successfully only if all the components are working. The creation of life on Earth required an all-star team of the right chemical, biological, and physical players, along with energy from the Sun to create and stimulate living organisms. The re-creation of healthy tissues unfolds in a similar way.

Plenty of things can go wrong. If the body is low on red blood cells (a condition called anemia), the healing is sometimes poor due to the low delivery of oxygen to the injury site. If the injured person is depressed, endorphins may not be released in the right combination to stimulate a healthy tissue response. 

The point is, healing occurs due to the collective action of all the players on the team. Only when all the members are present, and poised for action, does the natural healing response work ideally.

To learn more about anabolic therapy for sports injuries, check out Dr. Stone’s new book Play Forever: How to Recover from Injury and Thrive, on Amazon now.

Medically authored by
Kevin R. Stone, MD
Orthopaedic surgeon, clinician, scientist, inventor, and founder of multiple companies. Dr. Stone was trained at Harvard University in internal medicine and orthopaedic surgery and at Stanford University in general surgery.

Dr. Stone's New Book, Play Forever, is Available Now

Play Forever book by Kevin R. Stone, MD
Dr. Stone's Book, Play Forever, is Available Now
What is Play Forever? Dr. Stone wrote Play Forever to help injured athletes and those with arthritis discover how to stay active for a lifetime.