These days, you can find stem cell therapy clinics in such mundane venues as strip malls. They promise treatments for a variety of knee and joint pain problems, like arthritis and injuries. Stem cell doctors aren’t quite as common as dentists. Yet, the amount of doctors aggressively offering to treat a variety of ills with stem cells may lead you to believe that these therapies are in the same class of acceptable treatments as getting a cavity filled to ease a toothache.
Before you invest your money, time, and health in stem cells therapy for arthritis pain, you should take some time to explore potential risks, benefits and alternatives.
No doubt, arthritis pain plagues millions of people all over the world. In the United States alone, according to the CDC, over 50 million Americans suffer from this chronic disease. As one of the most common sources of chronic pain in the country, it is also one of the major sources of work disability.
As our population continues to age, doctors expect the number of people who have serious limitations because of this disease to grow. The CDC also mentioned that medicine has not produced a cure for most kinds of arthritis, especially those more common with an aging population. Still, it’s important for people to access valid treatments that can help minimize pain and reduce inflammation.
Treatment can help improve quality of life and slow progression. Common therapies include medication, physical therapy and surgery. Certainly, millions of people are eager to find arthritis treatments that could potentially reverse or stop the progress of this painful and sometimes crippling disease. A desire for relief and the promise of a cure has certainly sparked a lot of interest in stem cell therapy.
More recently, some clinics have begun to aggressively promote stem cell therapy as a remedy for the knee and other joint pain from arthritis. The doctor typically removes adult stem cells from elsewhere in the patient’s body, processes them and then injects them into the problem area. They may extract stem cells from blood, bone marrow or fat.
Dr. William Morrison, an orthopedics doctor, says that this kind of minimally invasive treatment rarely causes serious pain or other side effects any more than other types of injections. Because of this, he believes the possible benefits outweigh any risks. For example, since the doctors use the patient’s own tissues to prepare the solution, there is no risk of tissue rejection. Also, because the doctors simply return the patient’s tissues back to them, they don’t need to concern themselves with the same standards of testing or approvals that they might with medications or other procedures.
Dr. Morrison and other proponents of stem cell treatments believe their solution works because such joints as the knee lack the blood flow of other parts of the body, so the patient’s existing stem cells may not function well and can benefit from reinforcements. Once inside the afflicted joint, the stem cells may begin to form cartilage, reduce inflammation and release a kind of protein (called cytokines) that helps to reduce pain and slow degeneration. He even mentioned that some patients have received an injection in one knee and even reported relief in their other knee.
Researchers, doctors and even celebrities have offered all sorts of anecdotal stories about the positive results of stem cell treatments for various maladies, including arthritis. For instance, 80-year-old actor John Cleese mentioned in an interview that he considered it an anti-aging treatment that has helped him minimize knee pain from arthritis and even keep a more youthful appearance. The actor did admit that the therapy is “not very cheap.”
Depending upon the problem and the geographic location of the clinic, prices for therapy can range from $2,000 to $20,000, and most health insurance companies won’t cover most stem cell therapies. Typically, American health insurance only covers FDA-approved treatments. As a note, the only FDA-approved treatment, aside from clinical trials, for stem cells is for bone marrow transplants for people with certain kinds of blood disease and cancer. Doctors have successfully performed this kind of stem cell therapy for decades on over 17,000 patients and consider it well tested and supported by scientific studies.
Even doctors who offer stem cell therapy for arthritis sometimes admit that they have to rely upon the experiences of their patients to gauge the effectiveness of this kind of remedy. While the FDA has approved clinical trials, the National Institute of Health echoed that sentiment when it reviewed existing studies of using stem cell therapy for arthritis.
Mostly, that report called into question bias in the studies. For example, they did not take into account other treatments, like physical therapy and medication, that patients may have used at the same time they got their stem cell therapy. The report also found that studies did not investigate potential adverse effects that some patients suffered.
One bioethicist at Harvard, Insloo Hyun, went so far as to say that offering non-approved treatments even violates medical standards. Hyun added that it might seem harmless to move your own cells from one part of the body to another, but that various types of stem cells may be well-suited to working in one physical system and not another. He says that he believes these treatments have tremendous potential and understands why many people are desperate for a cure, but there’s no evidence or reasonable theory to back up claims of their current effectiveness.
Just as alarming, the FDA has already filed injunctions against some stem cell clinics. They say that those particular clinics have violated their manufacturing process requirements and made unproven claims about non-approved treatments. As an example, one clinic did not follow the correct protocol for storage, so they increased the risk of contamination that might cause an infection in the patient. The FDA statement added that they believe in the promise of future stem cell treatments and support research, but some of these expensive treatments have already made their way to the market and may come with more risks than rewards.
These days, you probably take a lot of steps to take control of your own health. For instance, you may take the time to research your diet, exercise program, and of course, the doctors that you trust. If you’ve exhausted other treatment options, you might look for controlled studies of stem cell therapy as a treatment for arthritis. In this case, you should probably receive free stem cell treatment and even other therapies. If you do decide, as did John Cleese, that you want to explore a stem cell clinic, make sure you investigate their track record. As with many health providers, some stem cell clinics are better than others.
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