Chronic pain is often the after-effect of degeneration, injury, or illness. Part of the body is left damaged somehow, and that damage causes pain. Most pain therapies concentrate on controlling the pain with medications, injections, or devices that block pain signals in one way or another. However, an emerging type of therapy may actually be able to slow or reverse the tissue damage that’s often to blame for chronic pain.
Regenerative therapy encourages the body to heal itself, so it has the potential to help a huge array of conditions.
Regenerative therapies involve the use of different cells (usually from the patient’s own body) to stimulate the body to produce new tissue. As explained by the Pain Doctor article on regenerative medicine:
“The main goal of regenerative therapy is to extract, refine, and concentrate healthy cells from a person and then inject that compound into the same person to grow those healthy cells into substitute body tissue that replaces and restores old, damaged, and weakened tissue.”
Regenerative therapies are usually well-suited to musculoskeletal pain, or pain that’s caused by something in the muscles or bones. Conditions that can respond well to regenerative therapies include:
- Cervical radiculopathy
- Compression fracture
- Degenerative disc disease
- Herniated disc
- Plantar fasciitis
- Failed back surgery
- Injuries, such as torn ligaments or muscles
There are three main types of regenerative therapy.
Stem cell therapy uses stem cells, which are a type of cell that’s able to differentiate, or become, other types of cells. They’re essentially cells that haven’t been assigned a job in the body yet. When an embryo is developing in the womb, it starts out as a mass of stem cells. As the embryo grows, the stem cells multiply and become the specialized cells that make up a body.
Embryos are one source of stem cells, but there are a lot of ethical questions involved in using embryonic stem cells. Fortunately, stem cells are also found in several locations in the adult body. The skin, blood, tissues, and bone marrow all have stem cells. Of these bodily locations, bone marrow is perhaps the most commonly-accessed source of adult stem cells for regenerative therapies. However, harvesting stem cells from bone marrow is a surgical procedure requiring anesthesia or sedation.
Amniotic membrane therapy is similar to stem cell therapy, except that cells from the amniotic membrane are used instead. The amniotic membrane is the inner layer of the placenta surrounding a baby during pregnancy. Usually the amniotic membrane is discarded, but if properly saved, it can be used later. It’s comprised of two types of cells, stromal and epithelial. Both types are, like stem cells, able to differentiate in to other cell types.
Platelet-rich plasma utilizes platelets found in the blood. Platelets contain growth factor proteins. These growth factor proteins play a part in clotting blood, stimulating wound healing, and promoting the growth of new soft tissue.
Compared to other chronic pain therapies, regenerative therapies have an extremely low risk of side effects.
Regenerative therapies typically involve nothing more than an injection to the painful area of the body, making them very safe. Because the injected compound, whether it’s stem cells, amniotic cells, or platelet-rich plasma, is usually from the patient’s own body to begin with, there’s almost no risk of infection.
Additionally, one of the biggest risks in the transplant of biological materials, such as organ transplants, is rejection. This is when the body realizes that the transplanted material is foreign and attacks it. However, since the cells used in regenerative therapy are the patient’s own natural cells, there is no chance at all of rejection.
Stem cell therapy utilizing adult stem cells from the bone marrow is the exception. The harvesting process requires a surgical procedure, which carries the same risks as any other surgery. If, however, the procured stem cells are used on the same person they’re from, this still has the benefit of being extremely low-risk for infection, with no risk of rejection.
The process for acquiring the cells for regenerative therapy is different for each type, but the application of the therapy is a simple, straight-forward process no matter the cell type.
The acquisition of adult stem cells typically requires surgery. Amniotic cells come from the amniotic membrane of the placenta, so a placenta is required. This can be a patient’s own placenta that’s been saved, or it can be from a family member. Immediate family members are more likely to be a close-enough match to ensure the cells won’t be rejected.
Platelet-rich plasma requires a blood draw. A patient’s blood is spun in a centrifuge to separate the platelets. The concentrated platelets are combined with residual blood, and the resultant compound is injected into the painful location on the body. From beginning to end, the process of drawing and preparing the blood and injecting the platelet-rich plasma takes between one and two hours.
After the regenerative cells have been injected, the patient is usually able to go home immediately. While physicians often suggest avoiding any strenuous activity for a few days, it’s possible to go back to regular day-to-day activities right away. Some irritation, soreness, bruising, or other minor discomforts might be present for a few days, but generally there are few side effects of regenerative therapy.
The injected regenerative cells should stimulate the healing and the growth of new tissue. For instance, in degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis, this may mean the growth of new cartilage around joints. With torn muscles or ligaments, regenerative therapy should support the growth of new tissues to heal the injury.
It often takes at least two weeks to notice any difference in pain after regenerative therapy, although in some people it may take even longer. In some cases, there may be no discernable pain reduction after regenerative therapy. However, because of its low risk of side effects, it may still be worth discussing with a physician.
Have you considered asking your physician about regenerative therapy?
Image by Matt Ritchie via Flickr