If you have chronic back pain, it is important to be aware of all your treatment options before considering surgery. A new technique to heal structures of the back uses a component of the patient’s body: stem cells.
Stem cells are the blank slate of cells: They can become other cells in the body. The cells used to treat back pain and other chronic pain conditions are called mesenchymal, and they can become bone, cartilage or fat cells depending on the environment they are put in. Adult cells are used, which differ from embryonic cells that can become any other type of cell. Taking the cells from an adult eliminates the controversy surrounding embryonic stem cell research from this form of treatment.
Stem cells may be able to treat a range of conditions due to their versatility, including degenerative disc disease, vertebral fracture, ligament damage and facet joint syndrome. Research is underway to determine the efficacy of this new therapy in treating various types of back pain causes.
Mesenchymal cells are taken from bone marrow, usually from the patient’s hip. This may be painful depending on the technique used. The company Regenexx uses a small needle to take a sample from the hip marrow and claims that this is a relatively painless procedure. After the cells have been isolated from the marrow, they are generally combined with platelets from your blood which contain growth factors. To make the procedure a fast one, many practitioners combine the cell and platelet mixture with platelet-rich plasma or another substance to encourage the speedy reproduction of stem cells. The cells and their growth factors are then injected into the area of the body that needs repair. If injected in a joint, cartilage will form; if in a disc, new disc material will grow; if in bone, new bone will form.
Stem cells have also been used to perform spinal fusion surgery, in which case a damaged disc is removed and the cell mixture is placed between two vertebrae to grow into bone and fuse them. Unlike the injection procedure, this is an invasive surgical procedure. Trials are underway to test stem cells’ ability to regrow damaged discs.
Currently, this therapy is new and not the most accessible treatment. It is only offered to those participating in clinical trials or by a couple of companies, such as Regenexx. An exact cost of stem cell therapy is not available and likely depends on your location, condition and the procedure selected to treat it. Non-surgical techniques such as the injection of cells is likely much cheaper than common surgeries like spinal fusion.
It will probably be a couple of years before stem cell therapy is widely available to those with back pain. It is best to undergo available conservative treatments like physical therapy and decompression treatments first. In the coming years, we may see the procedure become commonplace for those looking to avoid surgery.
New advances in back pain treatment offer hope to those who feel they’ve tried everything. There are many options for ending your pain, and stem cell therapy may be one of them.