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Exploring Stem Cell Treatment for Arthritis: A New Option for Joint Health

Stem cell treatment for arthritis may be a helpful treatment to keep you up and moving: image of four senior friends walking and being active outdoors

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Table of Contents

There is no cure for arthritis, but there are ways to manage the condition and reduce its impact. You may have heard of different options, such as medications, supplements, physical therapy, and surgery, but you need help determining what’s right for you.

But what if another option could help you heal your joints from within, using your body’s natural resources? What if it could regenerate your damaged cartilage and restore your joint function without surgery or drugs? That’s what stem cell therapy for arthritis offers.  

Stem cell therapy is a cutting-edge treatment that uses stem cells to repair and regenerate tissues in the body. As a physical therapist who has worked with many older adults before and after stem cell treatment, I’m excited to share some of the most important considerations of this cutting-edge treatment with you.

In this article, I’ll cover what stem cell therapy is, how it works, its benefits and drawbacks, and where you can get it. With a better understanding of this innovative treatment option, you can decide if you want to try it as you navigate the thorny terrain of arthritis management.

A Brief Primer on Arthritis and the Potential of Stem Cells for Relief

Arthritis is a common condition affecting millions of older adults worldwide. It causes inflammation, pain, and stiffness of any joint. It is widespread in millions of people’s knees, hips, and hands.

There are many types of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and psoriatic arthritis. Each type has different causes, symptoms, and treatments.

Some types of arthritis are caused by wear and tear of cartilage. In contrast, other types are caused by an overactive immune system that attacks the joint tissues.

What are stem cells, and can stem cell treatment help arthritis?

In their most basic form, stem cells are special cells that can transform into different types of cells, such as cartilage, bone, muscle, or nerve cells. They can also multiply and renew themselves, making them ideal for tissue regeneration.1

Stem cell therapy for arthritis involves extracting stem cells from a source. The source might be your bone marrow, fat tissue, or umbilical cord blood. The source cells are then injected into your affected joints.

The stem cells then migrate to the damaged areas and produce new cartilage cells, reducing inflammation, pain, and cartilage loss. This can improve your joint function and potentially delay or prevent the need for joint replacement surgery. Better joint function means a better quality of life.

Stem cell treatment for arthritis is not a new concept. In fact, it has been used for decades to treat blood disorders, such as leukemia and lymphoma, by transplanting stem cells from bone marrow or cord blood. However, it is only in recent years that stem cell therapy has been applied to treat orthopedic conditions, such as arthritis.

Different Types of Stem Cells

There are many types of stem cells. The cells most commonly used for arthritis treatment are adult stem cells taken from your body. These include:

  • Bone marrow stem cells: These are extracted from your hip or pelvic bone using a needle and a syringe. They are rich in mesenchymal stem cells, which can differentiate into cartilage, bone, and muscle cells.
  • Adipose stem cells: These are extracted from your fat tissue, usually from your abdomen or thigh, using a liposuction procedure. They are rich in mesenchymal stem cells and have anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory properties.
  • Umbilical cord blood stem cells: These are collected from the umbilical cord of a newborn baby, with the parent’s consent. They are rich in hematopoietic stem cells, which can differentiate into blood cells, and have a high potential for tissue regeneration.

So, can stem cell treatment help arthritis?

The Research Around Stem Cell Treatment for Arthritis

Arthritis stem cell treatment has shown promising results in several clinical trials and studies. For example, a review in 2020 reported that patients with knee osteoarthritis who received bone marrow stem cell injections significantly improved pain, function, and cartilage quality after one year.

Another study in 2023 showed that patients with knee osteoarthritis who received adipose stem cell injections significantly reduced pain and inflammation and increased cartilage thickness after six months.3

I have worked with many patients recovering from stem cell therapy. In my experience, results have been mixed depending on the patient, their health history, and the specifics of their arthritis.

However, new treatment approaches for stem cell therapy are constantly being researched, and the field continues to advance. Incremental progress may lead to improved results for older adults with arthritis.

These are a few examples of how stem cell therapy can help older adults with arthritis. Of course, stem cell therapy is not a magic bullet, and it may not work for everyone. Still, it is a promising and innovative option that can offer hope and relief to those with arthritis.

What are the benefits and risks of stem cell treatment for arthritis?

Positive smiling grandpa and grandson rest on green grass meadow in park. Granny supporting and praising grandchild for good riding roller-skates. Happy family recreation time on weekend

Stem cell therapy for arthritis has many potential benefits but also presents some significant limitations. Let’s talk about some of the most important advantages and limitations to think about before looking into this treatment more.

Benefits of Stem Cell Treatment for Arthritis

While there are also drawbacks, let’s discuss the benefits first. Here are some of the main benefits of arthritis stem cell treatment.

It is a minimally invasive procedure that does not require surgery or anesthesia. 

Unlike joint replacement surgery, which involves surgically replacing the damaged joint, stem cell therapy only involves a simple injection. This means a less invasive procedure with less pain and less downtime.

It has fewer side effects and complications than other treatments, such as steroids or joint replacement. 

Steroids are often used to reduce inflammation and pain in arthritic joints. They can have unwanted side effects such as osteoporosis and an increased risk of infection.

Joint replacement surgery, which is the last resort for severe arthritis, can have complications, like loosening, dislocation, or nerve damage.

On the other hand, stem cell therapy has minimal side effects, such as mild swelling, bruising, or discomfort at the injection site. It also has a low risk of rejection, infection, or allergic reaction since stem cells are derived from your own body or a compatible donor.

It can improve the quality of life and function for older adults. 

Many patients undergoing stem cell treatment for arthritis have reported significant improvements in pain, stiffness, mobility, and activity levels. Some patients have been able to resume their hobbies, sports, or work that they had given up due to arthritis or stopped their use of pain medication.

It can delay or prevent the need for joint replacement surgery. 

Joint replacement surgery is a significant and irreversible operation with its risks and limitations, and it may not restore the full function or natural feel of a joint. Stem cell therapy can preserve and restore the natural structure and function of the joint, which can slow down or stop the progression of arthritis.

Having worked with many older adults who have undergone steroid injections and total joint replacements, I’ve seen first-hand many of the potential side effects and complications that can take place. While no medical treatment is entirely safe, talking with your doctor to minimize the risk of possible complications during your treatment for arthritis should be your highest priority.

Risks and Limitations of Stem Cell Treatment for Arthritis

Some of the potential issues with arthritis stem cell treatment are:

It’s not a cure for arthritis and may not work for everyone.

Stem cell therapy can help reduce the symptoms and improve the function of arthritic joints. Still, it cannot currently be used to cure arthritis completely. It also cannot address underlying arthritis causes, such as genetics, age, or lifestyle factors. 

Most insurance plans do not cover it, and it can be expensive. 

Stem cell treatment for arthritis is still considered an experimental and unproven treatment by most insurance companies. Therefore, it is not covered by most insurance plans. This means you must pay for the treatment out of your pocket, which is expensive.

The FDA does not regulate it and variable quality and safety standards are an issue.

Stem cell therapy for arthritis is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is the agency that regulates the safety and effectiveness of drugs and medical devices in the US. This means there are no standardized guidelines or protocols for stem cell treatment for arthritis, and the quality and safety of the treatment may vary widely from one provider to another.

Stem cell treatment for arthritis may involve using stem cells from different sources, such as your own body, a compatible donor, or an embryo. Each source has ethical and legal implications, which you should consider before opting for stem cell therapy.

Stem cell treatment for arthritis is not a “magic bullet.”

This treatment is often only truly effective when accompanied by regular physical therapy or other treatment methods. PT is especially useful to strengthen the muscles around the affected joint. Still, the injections alone will not have the same effect.

When many of my patients ask for my advice regarding stem cell therapy options, I almost always refer them to their primary care doctor and insurance provider to learn more about what’s recommended for their condition, what’s covered by insurance, and how beneficial a treatment option like stem cell therapy may be compared to other treatment, such as physical therapy.

Where can I get stem cell treatment for arthritis?

Image of an older Hispanic man discussing stem cell treatment for arthritis

Like other new and innovative treatments for arthritis, stem cell therapy is not widely available. It may require traveling to a specialized clinic. Few providers offer stem cell treatment for arthritis in the US, and you may have to wait a long time to get an appointment or a cure.

If you want stem cell therapy for arthritis, talk to your doctor to help you find a reputable and qualified stem cell provider near you. Here are some resources to support you with your search:

The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR)

The ISSCR is a professional organization promoting stem cell research, development, and ethical use. They have a website that provides information and guidance on stem cell therapy, including a patient handbook and a list of questions to ask your provider. 

They also have a global database of stem cell clinics that claim to offer stem cell therapy for various conditions, including arthritis. However, they do not endorse or verify the quality or safety of these clinics, and they advise you to be cautious and skeptical before choosing one.

The Regenerative Medicine Foundation (RMF)

The RMF is a non-profit organization that supports advancing and regulating regenerative medicine, including stem cell therapy. They have a website that provides news, events, and resources on regenerative medicine, including a patient education center and a directory of regenerative medicine providers. 

They also have a seal of excellence program that recognizes and certifies stem cell providers who meet their quality, safety, and ethics standards. You can look for the Seal of Excellence logo on the websites of the stem cell providers or contact the RMF to verify their certification.

The Stem Cell Institute of America (SCIA)

The SCIA is a network of stem cell clinics that offer stem cell therapy for various orthopedic conditions, including arthritis. They have a website that provides information and testimonials on stem cell therapy and a locator tool to help you find a stem cell clinic near you. 

They claim to use FDA-compliant stem cells from umbilical cord blood and to follow strict protocols and procedures to ensure the quality and safety of their treatment. However, you should still research and ask questions before choosing them as your stem cell provider.

These are some of the resources that can help you find a stem cell provider for arthritis treatment. However, you should not rely on them alone, and you should always consult with your doctor and get their opinion before trying stem cell therapy for arthritis.

For many of my patients with arthritis, finding the best treatment available is their first priority. However, after reviewing all of the critical information to help decide if stem cell therapy is the proper treatment for their needs, some of my patients have also chosen to continue with physical therapy and other procedures that are more accessible and covered by their insurance.

Key Takeaways

  1. Stem cell therapy offers a novel approach for arthritis management, aiming to regenerate damaged cartilage and restore joint function without relying on surgery or drugs.
  2. The therapy involves extracting stem cells from the patient’s body or umbilical cord blood and then injecting them into the affected joints to promote tissue repair and reduce inflammation.
  3. Various types of stem cells are used in this therapy, including bone marrow stem cells, adipose stem cells, and umbilical cord blood stem cells, each with distinct regenerative capabilities.
  4. Promising results from clinical trials suggest improved pain, function, and cartilage quality in patients with knee osteoarthritis following stem cell treatment.
  5. Stem cell therapy for arthritis is minimally invasive and generally has fewer side effects compared to other treatments like steroids or joint replacement surgery.
  6. This therapy is not a cure for arthritis and may not be effective for everyone; it is also not widely covered by insurance and can be costly.
  7. Ethical and legal considerations, particularly regarding the source of stem cells, are important factors to contemplate before opting for this treatment.
  8. Stem cell therapy should complement regular physical therapy and other treatments for effective results.
  9. Consultation with healthcare professionals is essential to assess the suitability of stem cell therapy for individual arthritis cases and to explore all treatment options.

Summary

Stem cell therapy emerges as a promising treatment for arthritis, offering hope for joint restoration without conventional surgery or medication. This innovative approach utilizes the body’s own regenerative capabilities by injecting stem cells into the affected joints, fostering tissue repair and reducing inflammation. Various types of stem cells are employed, each with unique healing properties. Clinical evidence shows encouraging outcomes in pain relief and improved joint functionality, particularly in knee osteoarthritis cases. Despite its potential, stem cell therapy is not a universal cure and might not suit every individual. It often requires complementation with physical therapy and other treatments. The procedure, not yet widely covered by insurance, involves significant costs and ethical considerations. Therefore, thorough consultation with healthcare providers is crucial for those considering this option, ensuring a well-informed decision aligned with personal health needs and circumstances.

References

  1. NIH STEM CELL INFORMATION. Stem Cell Basics. National Institutes of Health.
  2. Centeno CJ, Pastoriza SM. PAST, CURRENT AND FUTURE INTERVENTIONAL ORTHOBIOLOGICS TECHNIQUES AND HOW THEY RELATE TO REGENERATIVE REHABILITATION: A CLINICAL COMMENTARY. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2020 Apr;15(2):301-325. PMID: 32269863; PMCID: PMC7134348.
  3. Yang, Y., Lan, Z., Yan, J. et al. Effect of intra-knee injection of autologous adipose stem cells or mesenchymal vascular components on short-term outcomes in patients with knee osteoarthritis: an updated meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Arthritis Res Ther 25, 147 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13075-023-03134-3
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