Can Your Own Stem Cells Cure Your Joint Pain?

Exploring Possible 
Regenerative Properties 
of Adult Stem Cells

Just like in many other aspects of life, people are always searching for the “latest and greatest” ways to treat their orthopedic problems. One of the newest treatment options available is stem cell therapy. Stem cell therapy has been touted to relieve pain related to: arthritis, rotator cuff tears, tennis elbow, herniated discs and dozens of other orthopedic conditions. Advertisements on TV and the internet suggest that you could avoid painful surgeries and prolonged rehabilitation if you have treatments with stem cells.  As a result, numerous patients come into my office asking if stem cell therapy may be right for them.

Stem cells that are used for orthopedic problems are adult stem cells – not the stem cells that are harvested from embryos and grown in the lab– which have been the topic of numerous political disagreements over that past few decades. These adult stem cells are typically harvested from a patient’s own bone marrow or fat tissue through minimally invasive techniques. The stem cells are then isolated and injected into the site of the damaged tissue – like an arthritic knee, for example. The stem cells are “multi-potent,”meaning that they can differentiate into many different types of tissue, including: cartilage, tendon, muscle and bone–depending on the environment that they are in.  Theoretically, stem cells injected into a torn muscle could turn into new muscle cells and improve healing time. Stem cells injected into an arthritic joint could turn into new cartilage cells and decrease pain.

There have been many success stories of stem cells in recent years; certainly, this treatment approach is very exciting and potentially groundbreaking. However, most healthcare professionals are not quite ready to go all in on stem cell therapies for several reasons. First and foremost, there is just not that much good scientific evidence to support using stem cells for most conditions. There are a handful of studies that show that stem cell injections are better than other types of injections for some conditions – patellar tendinitis and plantar fasciitis – but, overall, the quantity, quality and consistency of the scientific evidence is low.

As a result of this, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved any stem cell therapy, aside from bone marrow transplant for the treatment of certain blood cancers.  Companies that market stem cell therapies have argued that stem cells are not a “drug,” so their use should not be regulated by the FDA. The FDA has cautioned that the complexity of stem cell therapies creates a major challenge in ensuring safety and effectiveness, so these treatments should be regulated by their administration.  Fortunately, there are ongoing FDA trials studying stem cells in the treatment of knee arthritis and hundreds of other studies are currently examining the use of stem cells for other orthopedic conditions; there should be more clarity regarding these treatments over the next five to 10 years.

In the meantime, health insurance providers almost universally deny coverage for stem cell treatments on the grounds of these treatments being “experimental” or “investigational.”  So, patients typically are required to pay out of pocket to receive these treatments. Single injections can cost over $2,000 and full treatment courses from stem cell therapy companies can cost over $20,000.

To sum it all up, stem cell therapy for orthopedic conditions is still very much in its early stages of development. The next few years will be very exciting as we find out more about the applications and effectiveness of these regenerative treatments. For now, stem cell therapy may not be ready for “prime time” but it is certainly an option to consider, especially if standard treatment options do not solve your orthopedic problem(s). If you are curious about how stem cell treatments may be able to help you, ask your orthopedic doctor for an educated opinion.

For more information about stem cell therapy for your orthopedic condition or other treatment options, contact Dr. Blackman at the Bone and Joint Specialists of Chesterfield at 314.523.2595 or visit: StLukes-STL.com/BoneandJoint.