He’s 28. He has five 1,000-yard NFL rushing seasons to his name, one 2,000-yarder and a burning desire to prove he’s the same speedster he’s always been. So when Chris Johnson visited orthopedic surgeon James Andrews in January to fix his ailing left knee, he liked the sound of two intriguing words: Stem cells.
The veteran running back tore the meniscus in that knee in Week 3 of the 2013 season—his last with the Titans before being cut—but never missed a game. The injury to the knee’s natural shock absorber also caused other damage in the joint, and Andrews presented an option that might augment what surgery alone could do. The plan: Take stem cells, the body’s universal building blocks, and deliver them directly to the construction site.
“When I tore my meniscus and played the season out, through the wear and tear, I lost a lot of cartilage,” says Johnson, who was signed by the Jets to bring explosiveness to their offense. “When you put the stem cells in, it might be able to help rebuild that cartilage in your knee. Hopefully, it makes your knee better for even more years.”
On the day of his surgery at the Andrews Institute in Gulf Breeze, Fla., Johnson had a small amount of his bone marrow—60 milliliters, or the volume of a shot glass—siphoned out of the iliac crest of his pelvis with a long needle pushed through a tiny incision in his skin. Less than an hour later, at the end of the arthroscopic procedure to repair his meniscus, a concentrate of thousands of stem cells from the bone marrow was injected directly into Johnson’s knee joint.
Instead of the usual four-to-six-week recovery time from the scope, Johnson stayed off the practice field for the rest of the offseason, giving the stem-cell treatment maximum time to work. At the least, stem cells are a powerful anti-inflammatory. But the hope is they may also play a role in boosting the healing of injured tissues, including stubborn ones like the meniscus, which lacks a robust blood supply, or cartilage, which has long been irreplaceable.