Anthony Giansanti, 27, of Montville, Conn. has been playing baseball practically since he could walk. It’s in his blood. Giansanti’s grandfather and his nine brothers started their own league in Hartford in the 1950s. Giansanti first picked up a bat at age 4, and began playing competitively at 9.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play professionally,” says Giansanti, who joined the Chicago Cubs organization shortly after graduating from Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y.
But Giansanti, who has played on a variety of Cubs-affiliated minor league teams around the country and is now playing for the Bridgeport Bluefish in the independent Atlantic League, almost didn’t achieve his dream. During his freshman year at Siena, he was running to first base during a game against Tulane when he experienced what he says felt like a gunshot in his upper right leg.
The hamstring injury put Giansanti on the sidelines for two months. He did special pool exercises, underwent ultrasound and muscle-stimulation therapy, and rested every day. But no matter what he did, the injury continued to resurface throughout college and his early professional career, benching him for two to three weeks each time it flared up.
There’s nothing better than seeing a patient walk into my office smiling, saying they were able to do something in physical therapy for the first time in years.
In 2015, Giansanti was running to third for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs when he felt the same warm, intense cramp as he had his freshman year at Siena. Again, he was out for two months.
On the recommendation of other athletes, Giansanti visited UConn Health’s Dr. Cory Edgar, who sees patients at UConn Health Storrs Center and is an orthopaedic team physician for UConn Athletics. Edgar and Dr. Matthew Hall, another Huskies team physician, diagnosed him with a hole in his hamstring, and suggested an advanced, injectable treatment called platelet-rich plasma (PRP), followed by physical therapy and rehabilitation.
For four months, Giansanti practiced eccentric strength training and stretching. He received two PRP injections, six weeks apart.
“I now have absolutely no issues with my hamstring,” says Giansanti. “I am faster and stronger than ever before.”
Treating Athletes and Average Folks
The UConn Health team of nine sports medicine doctors who are trusted with keeping professional athletes like Giansanti, as well as more than 700 UConn Huskies student-athletes, in the game are the same ones who see 26,000 everyday people each year. And they bring the same cutting-edge strategies to the table to prevent and treat injuries for both types of patients.
“UConn’s sports medicine experts apply what keeps their top-performance athlete patients healthy and translate that knowledge to help guide the care of their everyday recreational athlete patients, and the weekend warriors, to keep them moving and doing what they want to do as they age,” says Dr. Robert Arciero, chief of the Division of Sports Medicine at UConn Health, a UConn Athletics team physician, and past president of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.
The cooperation between UConn Health and UConn Athletics benefits both groups — and their patients.
“UConn Health sports medicine experts are phenomenal and an integral part of our UConn Athletics team, as we rely heavily on their expertise to care for our UConn student-athletes,” says UConn’s Head Team Physician, Dr. Deena Casiero, the new director of sports medicine at UConn and an attending physician at UConn Health who completed a fellowship with UConn’s sports medicine team.
In addition to treating thousands of past and present UConn Huskies, UConn’s doctors have lent their expertise to such organizations as USA Hockey, the Hartford Whalers, the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, and the New York Islanders as team docs. What’s more, they are also all professors in the UConn School of Medicine’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, and all perform research that is leading the charge in preventing and treating sports injuries.
While proper rehabilitation, rest, and physical therapy form the bedrock of quality sports medicine and can fix many common injuries, such as stress fractures or shoulder dislocations, UConn’s research is taking treatment a step further.
“Our mission is to provide all aspects of musculoskeletal medicine for patient care, while advancing basic science and research, teaching and training doctors, and educating researchers around the world,” says Dr. Augustus D. Mazzocca, chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, director of the UConn Musculoskeletal Institute, and an orthopaedic team physician.
Much of the work centers on using a patient’s own tissues, including PRP or stem cells, to help heal injuries. One particularly ambitious undertaking is the HEAL (Hartford Engineering A Limb) Project, a global initiative led by UConn Health’s Dr. Cato T. Laurencin that aims to regenerate a human knee within seven years and an entire human limb by 2030.
Edgar, who treated Anthony Giansanti with PRP injections, studies how stem cell injections aid healing in tendon, bone, and rotator cuff injuries, as well as meniscus transplants.
“Our use of a patient’s own stem cells can expedite tissue healing, reduce the risk of repeat surgery, and speed a patient’s return to daily life,” Edgar says.
And ensuring patients can get back to doing what they love — be it dancing in the kitchen with their spouses or playing on the court in front of thousands — is the primary goal.
Giving Patients New Hope
Mazzocca is using stem cells to treat a particularly tricky type of injury. Athletes and average Joes alike struggle with stubborn rotator cuff injuries, which can occur while playing sports or from overuse, but sometimes happen for unknown reasons. In addition to being common, torn rotator cuff tendons — which hold the shoulder in place and allow for its movement — don’t always heal, leaving patients unable to lift or move their arms, and doctors don’t always know why.
Mazzocca and his team are working on both physical therapy and biological methods to change that.
“The patient with a bad outcome is the patient that drives us,” he says.
Part of Mazzocca’s team is conducting tests on cadavers to find out how much strain it takes for a newly repaired rotator cuff tendon to fail. The goal is to determine how much strength patients are likely to have post-surgery, giving doctors an idea of when they can tell patients to start rehab work. Another group is testing different physical therapy regimens to see which ones help patients recover fastest and most completely.
Despite the best efforts of surgeons and physical therapists, about 15 percent of rotator cuff patients just don’t heal — and the team suspects a biological reason. For those patients, Mazzocca says he is trying to “use the body’s own natural resources to precisely target and directly repair injured tissue.”
To do so, Mazzocca harvests the patient’s own stem cells during surgery, then spins them down in a centrifuge to concentrate them and inject them back into the repair site to advance healing. These adult stem cells, harvested from bone marrow within the patient’s humeral bone, have the potential to turn into bone, tendon, or cartilage.
“Someone who hasn’t used his or her arm in 10 to 15 years and you’re able to return that function to them — that’s the big thrill,” Mazzocca says.
That’s also the goal of the sports medicine team as a whole.
“There’s nothing better than seeing a patient walk into my office smiling, saying ‘Doc, look what I can do now,’ or saying they were able to do something in physical therapy for the first time in years,” says Edgar.