Chronic pain afflicts almost one in three Americans, making it one of the most common health conditions. The prevalence of chronic pain among the U.S. population has also made it an attractive focus of an emerging medical technology—stem cell treatment. These new therapies harvest undifferentiated stem cells, implant them in a target area and stimulate them to develop into healthy tissue and organs. Stem cell therapy has the potential to revolutionize numerous areas of medicine including pain management.
Stem cell treatments for chronic pain utilize multiple physiological mechanisms to heal damaged tissue and limit pain impulses. One important target of stem cell research is the on-site generation of cartilage, the rubbery tissue found in joints that act as cushions. For many arthritis and joint pain sufferers, loss of cartilage is the key cause of their discomfort. There are now ongoing studies in which mesenchymal stem cells have been injected in osteoarthritis patients. Not only was there an increase in cartilage quality, but pain diminished as a result.
Pain that results from injury or damaged tissue may respond quite well to mature stem cell treatments that target tissue regeneration, but there is also the potential to treat neuropathic pain which is not directly linked to an injury. In one study, mice were implanted with embryonic neural precursor cells that would later differentiate into GABAergic neurons. GABAergic neurons are believed to play a key role in inhibiting neuropathic pain impulses. As a result, the subject experienced a reduction in pain symptoms.
Assessing the Potential of Stem Cell Therapies
Many of these studies are eye-opening in their results, but you should recognize that it is likely years away before many of these stem cell treatments are officially approved by the FDA. One or even several successful, experimental outcomes suggest that there is significant promise with stem cell therapy. In addition, there is a plethora of anecdotal cases in which therapy has been effective in reversing the course of pain using stem cells. Today, stem cell therapy is primarily being offered to the public through specialized clinics in order to reverse the course of disease processes. It is also the only therapeutic option today that uses specific undifferentiated cells to repair damaged tissue. The most promising contextual application of stem cell therapy is the potential to delay or avoid surgical joint replacement for those prone to degenerative conditions.
Although there have been some successful human trials involving stem cell treatments (primarily in bone marrow transplantation), there remain a host of challenges still to overcome. The first is the ability to promote specific stem cell differentiation. Regardless of these challenges, it is Colorado Pain Care’s opinion that the FDA will begin the approval process for various conditions.
In addition to stem cell development issues, there is the risk of an immune response. In most cases, stem cells are harvested from the patient, thereby creating a cell population less likely to be rejected. However, if embryonic stem cells are used there is the theoretical risk of an immune response from the patient.
Finally, if you are eager to use a stem cell treatment to remedy a pain condition such as joint pain, keep in mind that there are many providers offering this service line. Our recommendation is to find a group that can best ensure proper delivery of the stem cells to the target site. Many charlatans may peddle “miraculous” cures involving stem cells, but beware that not all providers are qualified to ensure proper placement of the stem cells and we encourage patients to research each provider before committing to stem cell therapy.
Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care
M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.