Stem cells, and stem cell therapy, are popping up all over the place these days. A natural alternative to things like surgery, and the potential to help cure some concerning conditions have made it the latest wonder-trend in the medical field.
Stem cell therapy is being investigated for use in many different diseases including conditions like type 1 diabetes, cancer, osteoarthritis, macular degeneration, and lower back pain. Let's see how it's being used to treat lower back pain.
What Is Stem Cell Therapy
Stem cell therapy is a procedure that uses the body’s natural healing process to repair injuries, rebuild damaged muscles and tissue, and reduce pain. Stem cell therapy is generally a simple, out-patient based procedure which aims to eliminate the need for more risky and invasive surgeries.
It is also a popular alternative to using dependence-producing medications for the management of chronic pain conditions. This new therapy targets the underlying cause of the pain and is viewed as a more natural alternative for healing.
How To Use Stem Cell Treatment For Lower Back Pain
Researchers are investigating the effectiveness and safety of this new treatment in the hope that by harvesting, and then re-injecting the body’s own bone marrow into the spine, it can help to repair damaged and worn discs.
In theory, stem cell treatment could help to repair facet joints, rehydrate worn discs, restore function to damaged spines, and help to reduce the unbearable chronic pain associated with lower back conditions.
The harvesting process involves the use of a long needle to extract bone marrow from the back of the hip. This bone marrow is then placed in a special machine called a centrifuge and then it is spun around at very high speed in order to concentrate the cells. Once the stem cells have been separated they can then be injected into the site of injury, or damage, such as the spinal discs.
Does stem cell therapy really work for back pain? A clinical study's results
Many different studies are currently being conducted to test the effectiveness of this treatment in patients suffering from lower back and spine conditions.
Dr. Joseph Meyer, Jr., an anesthesiologist and pain medicine specialist at Columbia Interventional Pain Center in St. Louis did a study on 24 patients from his clinic. He and his colleagues focused on patients who had been injected with their own bone marrow cellular concentrate (BMAC) - their own bone marrow stem cells. BMAC contains adult stem cells that the body can use to regenerate different kinds of tissues, potentially healing damaged ones.
In Dr. Meyer's study the patients involved had reported suffering from chronic low back pain from between three months to 12 years. Imaging showed that all of the patients had evidence of some degeneration or damage to the discs found between the vertebrae (spinal discs). This was an important consideration since disc degeneration is a major cause of low back pain.
The Outcomes Of The Stem Cell Study
On the positive side, the treatment seemed to be safe and well tolerated and none of the patients experienced worsening pain after the procedure.
Dr. Meyer found that out of the 24 patients who had received the bone marrow injections, 50% of them ended up undergoing other procedures within the next 30 months. Of the other 50% who did not have any other treatment, 10 of them reported that their pain had lessened 2-4 months after their injections.
Longer Term Results Of The Trial
After 1 year, 8 of the 24 patients reported that they still felt significant pain relief, while 3 said that their back pain had not improved (one patient had not reached the 12 month mark, though).
After a further 2 years, 5 patients felt that their back pain had improved, while 3 still reported no improvement in their condition. It was still too early to draw conclusions for the other 4 patients.
Another positive finding was that none of the patients had experienced any complications from the procedure, even though injections always carry some risk of infection.
In a different study, stem cell treatment was found to produce positive results in more than 45% of study participants. These patients saw improvements in less than 6 months which is much faster than the results achieved with surgery which generally has a very long recovery process.
How long does stem cell therapy last for back pain?
One of the exciting benefits of stem cell therapy is the length of time that results can last. Pain relief is often seen fairly quickly after treatment (especially compared to surgery) - about two to three months post procedure. The healing process can continue to take place for up to a full year.
Is stem cell therapy for back pain FDA approved?
Unfortunately stem cell therapy is still considered to be experimental and there is not yet enough evidence to support the use of this treatment. Therefore it is not approved by the FDA .
Dr. Richard Deyo, M.D. MPH., deputy editor of the journal, Spine, shared that “we have a long history of treatments that look promising when they start and turn out to be no more effective than placebo interventions.”
Dr. Deyo also says that it is important to remember that, “we also have a history of treatments that, in some cases, turned out to be harmful. It’s really too early to know if this is going to be effective or safe.”
Dr Joseph Meyer Jr. tells his patients that “we don’t know if it works. I do believe that it’s safe, but it might not do anything for you.”. What we do know is that a lot more research still needs to be done before experts can say whether the treatment offers any real benefits to patients.
Does Insurance Cover Stem Cell Injections?
Stem cells are still considered to be experimental so it is unlikely that an insurance company will pay for the treatment. Your insurance company may pay for your consultation with your doctor as well as the other costs that might be associated with the actual procedure.
How Much Does Stem Cell Therapy For Back Pain Cost?
According to data from Texas Monthly, experimental stem Cell therapy can range from around $5,000 to $7,000, depending on the type of injections and what the treatment is being used for (spinal injections, disc regeneration, etc.).
What Are The Negative Effects Of Stem Cell Therapy?
Stem cell clinics have been promising miraculous cures for a whole host of conditions but there have been some issues that have caused concern for this treatment. In one instance, cases of blindness began to occur with some eye procedures, which caught attention of the FDA.
In August of 2017 the FDA started cracking down on some of the freely operating clinics offering stem cell treatments. One particular clinic in Florida had 3 patients who lost their eyesight due to a stem cell procedure. The FDA won a case against them that allowed them the opportunity to regulate the treatments that this clinic (and their parent company) provided.
The FDA only took legal action after several attempts to provide the clinics with the opportunity to work with them on coming into compliance with regulations in order to protect patients from harm.
Federal marshals also seized live-virus vaccines from a different company, based in California, that was injecting stem cells, mixed with these viruses, into cancer patients.
Risks Of Stem Cell Therapy
If you are considering trying this treatment it is essential that you find a reputable company that is in compliance with FDA regulations. While stem cell therapy is much less invasive than surgery and has far fewer apparent risks, the following are some of the main concerns for this treatment:
Reactions at the administration site
Failure of the treatment to work as expected
The potential for cells to migrate from placement cells and turn into other types of cells, such as tumors.
Conservative approaches to persistent pain in the lower back include things like physical therapy, exercise and weight loss. Unfortunately these efforts don’t work for everyone and after a while patients can be desperate to find a solution to their pain.
Sometimes the next step for doctors is to recommend spinal fusion surgery but even this is only affective about 50% of the time, and it is much more invasive and risky.
With this in mind, it is understandable that both doctors and patients would be excited to try something far less invasive like digital physical therapy before moving on to surgery.
What science will tell us, as more research is done, remains to be seen.