In health care today, we see frequent advancements that benefit patients and enhance quality of life. One field where science continues to explore and develop promising innovations is stem cell therapy.
What makes stem cells a unique tool for medical treatment is that they’re already an essential part of every one of us.
Our stem cells have the potential to develop into many different cell types.
When a stem cell divides, each new cell can either remain a stem cell or it can become another more specialized cell, such as a muscle, bone, ligament or tendon. Some stem cells can even become brain or nerve cells. We call the process by which stem cells specialize “differentiation.”
In many body tissues, stem cells serve as an internal repair system. Stem cells can replace some body cells that are lost or damaged by injury or disease. For example, when patients undergo chemotherapy for cancer, stem cells in their bone barrow can be removed before chemo and then replaced afterward. These stem cells then start to produce healthy new cells. This helps speed recovery.
Stem cells’ repair role is a key element of regenerative medicine.
Stem cell therapy is one aspect of regenerative medicine. This medical field involves the study and use of self-healing and tissue engineering, which aims to develop biological substitutes that restore, maintain or improve the functions of human tissue.
We’re constantly learning more about the potential of regenerative medicine. Stem cells may someday help us treat diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
Among the developments already underway is evidence-based regenerative care for bone and joint issues.
Today, we’re successfully using stem cell therapy to treat a number of conditions where it can help promote healing, including:
Throughout the treatment process, we take time to educate patients about when stem cell therapy can help them and when it may be of limited or no benefit. This is field in which the societal demand is pushing us faster than our ability to perform thorough scientific studies.
There has been a lot of media attention recently surrounding stem cell therapy for arthritis. Arthritis is the process of cartilage (the smooth, gliding surfaces of the joint) wearing out. It is a spectrum that occurs over time. Once the damage in the joint is too severe, there is a low likelihood of success with stem cell therapy. That’s because there’s no longer any protective tissue left in the joint for stem cells to help repair.
The degree of benefit of stem cell use for arthritis is variable. Most patients do get at least some relief when the appropriate stem cell therapy is correctly administered. I usually suggest patients approach stem cell therapy with a skeptical optimism. Chronic pain is very challenging to live with. Patients want to believe there is an easy solution for the pain. While many physicians agree that there is much promise with stem cell therapy, it is not a “cure-all” solution.
Stem cell therapy involves the use of a patient’s own cells. There are many techniques to harvest them, however I prefer to use stem cells derived from the bone marrow in the pelvis. We utilize a lot of local anesthetic (numbing medicine) and then place a needle into the pelvis to harvest the bone marrow. While sometimes uncomfortable, patients generally tolerate it well. The bone marrow is then placed into a special centrifuge that separates the cells and isolates and concentrates the platelets and stem cells. These cells are then injected into the painful joint or tissue.
Stem cells can also be extracted from the patient’s own fat or another bone marrow source.
If the patient has a history of cancer, we may not be able to use their own cells. We may have to consider alternatives.
An alternative option for biologic therapy is the use of amniotic tissue (fluid or amnion) This tissue acts as more of a “stem-cell magnet” by providing chemicals that signal a patient’s own stem cells to focus on the affected area. These are not actually stem cells. The tissues are collected from volunteers’ amniotic fluid after caesarean sections. (The fluid is otherwise discarded after birth.) The fluid is processed and sterilized for safety before being distributed for therapeutic utilization.
Depending on the therapy goals, the amniotic cells may be injected into the injured joint, tendon or ligament.
Stem cell therapy is safe. When referring to stem cells, we are using a patient’s own cells. There is always a risk of infection when injecting a joint or tissue, but this is extremely rare. The nice part about these therapies are that they don’t burn any bridges for future surgery. If stem cell therapy is unsuccessful, it’s still safe to have a surgical repair later.
If you’re considering stem cell therapy for joint issues, do some research first. These types of treatments can be a sizable investment, and they’re rarely, if ever, covered by health insurance. It is generally an out-of-pocket cost.
Find out about your stem cell therapy provider’s credentials and experience. An orthopedic surgeon can advise you about when stem cell therapy may or may not be appropriate.
By receiving treatment from a qualified health care professional such as an orthopedic surgeon, you can rest assured that your clinician can provide care for the entire spectrum of joint diseases, conditions and side effects that may arise.
If you’d like to know more about stem cell therapy and how it might help you, find an orthopedic specialist online. Select the Specialty Orthopedic Specialists and your City/ZIP. When you’re ready, you can make your appointment online.