Most people have a basic understanding of what stem cells are, but don’t really know how they work. Hopefully I can shed some light on that, and explain how stem cells can be used as a possible for arthritis and joint pain. Now that we are pairing DNA research with diseases like arthritis, we are hoping to tailor treatments for specific patients that could actually work better than traditional medication or invasive surgery.
With stem cells as a treatment option, we are pioneering new forefronts in medicine, and one question I am asked frequently is ‘Could stem cells cure or improve my arthritis, knee, hip, or shoulder pain?’
The thought process behind stem cells is that they help the joint make new cartilage cells to restore and form stronger more resilient cartilage during the healing process. The goal is to use stem cells to support the self-healing process of the joint cartilage. If the body could produce and repair cartilage, then in theory symptoms of arthritis would be diminished.
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Stem cells can be taken from the person’s own body. The can be harvested from fat, bone marrow (substance inside bones), muscle and other tissues. The sought-after cells are called mesenchymal stem cells and their key element is the ability to change into various functioning cells. After harvesting, the cells are tested and evaluated for their ability to positively affect cartilage growth. The stem cells are then injected in to the joint or can be surgically placed inside the joint. The challenge is that different people produce different amounts of stems cells and even the same person during different times of the day and week produce varying amounts of stem cells. So, it is not a consistent treatment.
Stem cells can also be harvested from donated human umbilical cord tissue. The umbilical cord tissue has a great deal of mesenchymal stem cells and the stem cells are more potent than from the sources listed above.
The treatment at this time is not covered by insurance and can cost around $4,000. The treatment is significantly less effective in obese patients as their body weight would be too much stress on the injected stem cells. The patient would be asked to decrease their activities after the injection.
Unfortunately, at this point, there is not enough data to show that this is truly the way to go in advance in arthritis when compared to our current treatment options.
However, significant work is being put into the development of stem cell treatment for arthritis in hopes that it could slow or prevent the destruction of cartilage.
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