More and more, the regenerative powers of the body are being studied as a way to treat disease and injury. A good example of this is the use of stem cells to heal tissues in the body.
What are stem cells?
Both stem cells and some other types of cells in the body, such as skin cells, have the ability to divide and duplicate themselves. However, stem cells have another amazing ability: They can become a different type of cell. A stem cell can develop into a specialized cell, like a cartilage cell or bone cell.
When they hear the term “stem cell,” some people may think of the controversy surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells. However, there’s another type of stem cell—known as adult or mesenchymal stem cells—that are found in every person’s tissues.
Adult stem cells are the type of stem cells being studied and used to treat conditions like arthritis.
How stem cells may treat arthritis
Because of their ability to develop into specialized cells, researchers believe that stem cells can be used to repair damaged cartilage. In theory, if stem cells are placed near the damaged cartilage, they’ll develop into cartilage cells.
Physicians typically harvest adult stem cells from 3 locations:
- Fat (andipose) tissue—via surgery or liposuction
- Bone marrow—via needle withdrawal from the pelvic bone
The stem cells are concentrated or sometimes cultured (grown in a lab over time), then injected into the arthritis-affected joint. Most often, this is the knee joint.
Is stem cell therapy right for you?
The key question is, does this therapy work? So far, some research has indicated that it may yield favorable results for those with osteoarthritis, particularly in the early stages of the condition.
However, there have only been a few small case studies. Plus, the evidence is poorer quality because there are so many variables in how stem cell injections are created and used. This is a similar situation for platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections, another treatment formulated from the body’s own regenerative materials.
Like PRP injections, stem cell therapies have the benefit of being pretty safe and low risk for side effects, since the injections are formulated from your own tissues.
But keep in mind that stem cell therapy can be fairly pricey, as it’s not covered by most insurance. Also, the quality of the treatments can vary a lot depending on the experience and expertise of the doctor administering it.
If you are considering stem cell treatments for your arthritic joint, be sure to ask the doctor questions like the following:
- What is your experience with this treatment?
- How will my stem cells be harvested? How will they be concentrated or cultured?
- Will you use imaging to ensure accuracy for the injection?
- How do people with similar joint damage to me respond to treatment?