There’s been a lot of talk about stem cell therapy in recent years—but what is it, exactly? How does it work, and is it an effective treatment for knee pain?
Knee pain affects over 25% of adults in the US, and can affect anyone of any age. While physical therapy and prescription medications can be used to effectively treat mild pain, those with more severe pain may require surgery.
For patients who are struggling to manage knee pain but would like to delay knee replacement surgery, stem cell therapy may be an option. Dr. Daniel E. Murphy, an orthopedic specialist here at Florida Medical Clinic wants to help patients understand stem cell treatment, its uses and limitations, and how it may help some find relief from knee pain caused by injury or arthritis.
What is stem cell treatment?
Stem cell therapy, also called orthobiologic treatment when talking about treating orthopedic conditions, is a special kind of medical treatment that uses stem cells and growth factors to reduce pain.
In the human body, most cells have one job. For example, a red blood cell can’t do the same job as a skin cell. However, stem cells are a special kind of cell that have the potential to divide into any other type of cell found in the body, like a liver cell or a heart muscle cell. That means they can perform many different jobs.
In some laboratories, scientists have been able to help some patients rebuild damaged tissue using stem cells. While that success has been limited to lab settings, Dr. Murphy says doctors are still studying if it can be used to help everyday patients regenerate lost tissue. That’s because there’s still a lot we don’t know about stem cells and how they can be manipulated to work in different parts of the body.
Scientists aren’t sure if or how stem cell treatment can help patients regrow lost cartilage or bone density, which may be at the root of many cases of knee pain. However, we do know that patients suffering from knee pain may find relief with treatment.
What is stem cell therapy for knee pain?
You may be wary of stem cells if you’ve heard about some of the controversy surrounding how they’re sourced. It’s true that some kinds of stem cells are sourced from donated blastocysts (early-stage embryos) that are just a few days old, but these kinds are not used for orthobiologic treatment.
Instead, orthobiologic therapy for knee pain most commonly uses stem cells from adult patients themselves by taking samples of bone marrow and other tissues.
During treatment, a doctor will take samples of stem cells from other parts of your body and reimplant them into an injured area. For knee pain, that may involve taking sample cells from bone marrow or fat tissue and injecting them into knee joints.
Your doctor will always discuss the source of your stem cells with you before starting treatment and will not inject you with any substance you do not consent to.
Does stem cell treatment work?
Stem cell therapy may help reduce pain but is not a magic solution for any disease or condition. Be wary of any physician or clinic that claims stem cell therapy can completely reverse or heal an orthopedic condition.
As of 2020, the FDA has only approved stem cell treatment for a few kinds of diseases, including some cancers and blood disorders. However, reinjecting a patient’s own stem cells back into their body is permitted as a therapy for orthopedic purposes.
Many patients do find relief from pain and stiffness caused by knee injuries or osteoarthritis with orthobiologic treatment. It may also be a good alternative to knee replacement surgery in some patients. There has been some evidence that orthobiologic injections reduce knee pain in patients by as much as 75%, which was supported by a follow-up study. Scientists believe this may be because injected stem cells can help reduce inflammation.
What are the potential benefits and drawbacks?
Stem cell therapy and orthobiologic treatment are still burgeoning medical fields. There’s a lot we’re still learning about their uses, benefits, and drawbacks. We don’t know for certain if it works for things like cartilage regeneration or healing spinal cord injuries.
Despite this, Dr. Murphy reports that many patients do find orthobiologic treatment to be helpful for their knee pain—even if it doesn’t reverse bone or cartilage loss. Some of the benefits may include:
- Less pain from osteoarthritis or past injuries
- Reduced joint stiffness
- Reduced dependency on pain medications
- Improved mobility
The majority of patients who receive stem cell treatment for knee pain experience quick recovery times and little to no adverse side effects. That being said, it’s important to know the potential drawbacks:
- Risk of bacterial infection
- Redness, pain, and/or swelling at the injection site
- May be ineffective for some patients
Your doctor should fully discuss the pros and cons of this treatment with you before you receive any injections. Some patients may not be eligible based on certain risk factors.
Learn More About Stem Cell Therapy
In combination with lifestyle changes and other treatments, many patients find relief from knee pain with stem cell therapy. That being said, it’s important to discuss your options and risk factors with your doctor to determine what kind of treatment path is right for you.
If you’re considering a stem cell injection, make sure your doctor is a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon before you proceed. Your physician should be listed on the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website at aaos.org.
Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to substitute professional medical advice. Always talk with your doctor before starting or stopping medications or treatments.