What are stem cells? What is stem cell therapy?
What are stem cells?
Stem cells represent the body’s foundational material as they can develop into a range of different cells forms with specialized functions such as brain, heart, blood, or muscle cells. Sometimes, they repair damaged tissues or self-renew, becoming new stem cells. It is worth noting that no other cells in the human body possess the natural power to create new cells types, something which makes stem cells so important and useful.
If you’ve ever investigated cutting-edge new therapies for treating pain, you may have heard of stem cell therapy. Hailed by many as the future of medicine, this minimally invasive treatment could soon be widely adopted to combat a range of serious illnesses. So, what exactly are stem cells, and how are they used in stem cell therapy? In this brief guide, we cover the basics of this exciting treatment.
What are the different types of stem cell?
There are three primary stem cell types, including:
- Embryonic stem cells: These cells are found in embryos aged between three and five days. Such embryos are referred to as blastocytes and contain around 150 cells. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can easily proliferate into more stem cells or become specialized cells. Due to the power and versatility of these cells, they can be used to regenerate diseased organs or tissues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are many ethical concerns surrounding the use of embryonic cells in medical treatment. However, current stem cell therapy for pain and other conditions is generally restricted to adult stem cells.
- Adult stem cells: Adult stem cells are present in small quantities in adult human tissues such as fat and bone marrow. They are less versatile than embryonic cells as they can turn into only a small range of specialized cells. Despite this, emerging evidence indicates that adult cells may be useful in treating a wide range of problems.
- Induced pluripotent stem cells: Scientists recently managed to transform regular adult cells into stem cells using specialist genetic technology. In essence, they reprogrammed the genetic material in the cells to make them act like embryonic cells. This promising new technique may help to combat a range of serious diseases in the future. For now, however, scientists do not know whether this kind of genetic modification could produce adverse effects in humans.
- Perinatal stem cells: Stem cells are present in umbilical cord blood and amniotic fluid. These cells are known as perinatal stem cells and, like embryonic stem cells, possess the ability to become a range of different specialized cells. As the wider public starts to learn about the powers of stem cells to treat disease, an increasing number of people are choosing to donate their cord blood in stem cells treatments and for use in clinical research.
How do stem cells work?
Back pain is primarily due to inflammation. When we inject the stem cells, they “sense” the inflammation and get activated. Once they are activated, they secrete many anti-inflammatory proteins. These are the strongest anti-inflammatory agents known to man. More importantly, unlike man-made anti-inflammatory drugs, they do not have any side effects. Once the inflammation gets better, pain relief is obtained. This is the most important reason for getting the stem cell therapy.
Stem cells also cause regeneration of the disc. This regeneration seems more microscopic rather than macroscopic. In one study, although 81% of patients got pain relief, only 40% showed positive changes on the MRI. Another study showed that when bone marrow stem cells were injected in the spine, they not only proliferated but also created extra disc tissue implying regeneration.
Stem cells also cause “immunomodulation”. Once your body senses degeneration in the spine, it tends to attack it further. Stem cells by regulating the attacking cells, may prevent further damage in the spine. This can reverse or slow the progression of the disease.
However, the primary reason to get stem cell therapy is for its anti-inflammatory action which provides pain relief. For more details about the mechanism of action of stem cells, click here.
How is stem cell therapy administered?
Stem cell therapy for pain relief usually involves aspirating stem cells from the body (such as those found in fat or bone marrow) and injecting them into the affected area. Injections take four forms, including:
- Intravenous (IV) injections: IV injections are very easy to administer and do not require anesthesia. The process usually takes between 20 and 30 minutes per session.
- Intra-articular (IA) injections: IA injections are administered directly into an injured or painful joint and are commonly used in conditions such as arthritis. Again, this method does not require anesthesia and is relatively quick and painless.
- Intramuscular (IM) injections: IM injections are delivered directly into affected muscles. They are considered very safe and do not require anesthesia.
- Intrathecal procedures (lumbar punctures): It is sometimes necessary to administer stem cells intrathecally to treat neurological conditions. This means that they are delivered straight into the spinal fluid, surpassing the blood-brain barrier. This method requires local anesthesia and the help of a medical professional experienced in delivering lumbar punctures.
How long do the effects of stem cell therapy last?
Following a stem cell injection, a patient’s body will continue to form new cells for up to a year. However, many patients report improvements within a week or two of treatment. For optimal results, it is important that patients undergo physical therapy following stem cell therapy, as well as follow any recommendations from physicians such as topical treatments or massage regimes.
Should I try stem cell therapy for pain relief?
If you experience chronic back, shoulder, or joint pain, you’ll know how it can negatively affect your quality of life. Stem cell therapy is a very promising option worth considering if you’re otherwise healthy and keen to get back to your former self.
It is worth noting, of course, that stem therapy isn’t for everyone. People with chronic infections, active cancers, or a blood-related medical disorder may not react well to the treatment. If you’re unsure about your suitability for stem cell therapy, it is a good idea to speak to your physician before going ahead with it.
Overall, however, stem cell therapy is well tolerated and offers a fabulous alternative to invasive surgical treatments requiring months of rehabilitation.