Regenerative medicine is showing promise as an option for treating different conditions, injuries, and to improve healing rates after surgery. Platelet-rich plasma in one of these therapies used particularly with joint healing. Another is stem cell therapy.
At Innovative Spine Care, we have treatment options for a varying degree of conditions. Recently, Dr. Stephen Watson has begun to use stem cell treatment and continues to help people dealing with painful and irritating spinal issues.
WHAT ARE STEM CELLS?
Although our bodies have over 200 types of cells, stem cells are unique in that they have the ability to become many different types of cells. Plus, they replicate rapidly, so they play an important role in the body’s healing processes.
Different cells have different life cycles, and there is constant regeneration. When we suffer an injury, such as a herniated or degenerating disc, cell degeneration exceeds regeneration. This makes the injured area inflamed and painful, and the pain can radiate away from the site.
Stem cells are important in the healing process because their replication can overcome cell degeneration, enabling them to repair the injury. For back injuries, stem cells taken from bone marrow are found to be the best for repair.
WHAT IS STEM CELL THERAPY?
Stem cells are jacks-of-all-trades, so to speak, able to change into, and heal, different kinds of tissues. Their role in the body is primarily to help heal damaged tissue by replacing damaged or dying cells.
For patients with chronic lower back pain, back pain that hasn’t responded to more conservative treatments, the pain is often the result of degenerative disc disease. With stem cell therapy, stem cells are injected around the damaged spinal discs and they help to regenerate the disc and calm the irritated nerve roots, reducing back pain.
WHAT IS THE SUCCESS RATE OF STEM CELL THERAPY?
Different patients can have different levels of improvement after stem cell therapy for their back pain, but improvement is universal. Various studies have shown that 85 percent of patients report noticeable or significant improvement of their back pain. Stem cell therapy is a new and expanding area of pain management, so long-term broad-based studies are not available, but smaller studies show these high success rates.
HOW ARE THE STEM CELLS OBTAINED?
Adult stem cells are found in the highest concentrations in two locations: the iliac crest on the upper part of the hips and in adipose (fat) tissue. Here’s how Dr. Watson obtains these cells for reinjection.
The iliac crest is the curved upper border of the ilium, the largest of the three bones that merge to form the hipbone. It is located on the superior and lateral edge of the ilium and is very close to the surface. To harvest stem cells from this area, Dr. Watson uses a long needle to extract bone marrow guided by live x-ray imaging. The bone marrow is then placed in a centrifuge to concentrate the stem cells, removing non-vital material.
AM I A CANDIDATE FOR STEM CELL THERAPY?
Most chronic lower back pain is due to degenerative disc disease, which is a common factor of natural aging. This condition causes the spinal discs to degenerate and thin.
As a result, they don’t occupy the same space between the vertebrae.
There is now less space and cushion between the vertebrae and this leads to impingement of the nerve roots exiting the spine and the development of bone spurs on the facet joints of the spine. This leads to chronic pain as the nerve roots are continually being irritated.
Exercise, weight loss, and other conservative treatment options need to be tried first, but if the pain continues and becomes debilitating, the next option is usually for either microdiscectomy surgery or spinal fusion. If this sounds like you then you would be a good candidate for stem cell therapy.
However, if you have osteoporosis, this may not be the best option. The injection of bone cement could be a better treatment for your cracked and damaged vertebrae.
WHAT CONDITIONS COULD BENEFIT FROM STEM CELL THERAPY?
This therapy is used by Dr. Watson to treat chronic lower back pain. These conditions could be causing the pain and may improve with this therapy:
- Degenerative disc disease, where the spinal discs have flattened or otherwise degenerated or become damaged
- Sciatica, where the sciatic nerve exiting the lower spine is irritated by a bulging lumbar disc, causing pain through the buttocks and down one leg
- Facet issues, where the facet joints on the back of one or more vertebrae have either developed bone spurs or other conditions that are then creating compression on the nerve roots exiting the vertebra in the area
IS THERE ANYTHING I NEED TO DO TO PREPARE FOR STEM CELL THERAPY?
There isn’t much preparation necessary for these treatments with Dr. Watson. One week before your session at Innovative Spine Care, you’ll need to stop taking any anti-inflammatory medications, aspirin, blood thinning medications, and most supplements. These can all lead to excessive bleeding at both the harvest site and the injection site.
Also, patients need to be hydrated, so for one to two days before your procedure you should drink 64 ounces of water each day.
HOW ARE THE STEM CELLS INJECTED?
Once Dr. Watson has harvested and concentrated the stem cells in the centrifuge, the serum that remains is ready for reinjection. Next, Dr. Watson uses real-time x-ray guidance to locate the damaged disc.
Following the x-ray guidance, the stem cells are then injected into the space around the damaged disc. This gives the stem cells direct access to the disc and the irritated nerve root. The stem cells will then find the damaged tissue and stimulate the body’s natural healing process.
IS THE STEM CELL EXTRACTION PROCESS PAINFUL?
Dr. Watson applies local anesthetic to the area above the iliac crest of the hips. This makes for painless insertion of the special extraction needle to withdraw the marrow blood. This blood contains the stem cells. This harvesting procedure isn’t to be confused with a bone marrow biopsy, which can be quite painful. Our Innovative Spine Care patients find harvesting to be easily tolerated.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE FOR A STEM CELL THERAPY SESSION?
The process of harvesting the stem cells, concentrating them in the centrifuge, and then injecting them into the area of your damaged disc or discs takes about 90 minutes. There isn’t any recovery afterwards, so you can get right back to your normal activities.
IS THERE ANY DOWNTIME OR RECOVERY AFTER MY STEM CELL INJECTIONS?
No. Patients can get right back to their normal activities after their stem cell session.
HOW LONG BEFORE I SEE RESULTS?
Dr. Watson performs the entire stem cell therapy process in his Tampa offices. Afterwards, patients can walk out of our offices with minimal discomfort. Most patients can return to work the day after their procedure. While usually not an issue, due to their history of chronic pain, Dr. Watson advises patients to avoid impact exercise or strenuous exercise for one month.
Pain relief isn’t immediate, as it takes some time for the stem cells to get to work. Patients can feel relief beginning in as little as 2-12 weeks, and their situation usually continues to improve for the following 6-12 months. Patients note a decrease in pain and inflammation. This returns mobility and function and allows patients to return to activities and sports they love but have had to give up.
These results vary by the individual, as you would expect. They are contingent upon the healing processes in each individual patient.
HOW LONG WILL MY RESULTS LAST?
The goal of our stem cell treatments at Innovative Spine Care is to reduce the patient’s pain and improve function without the patient having to resort to back surgery. Once injected, the stem cells will continue to work and form new cells in the target area for up to one year. Again, our patients have had varying results with stem cell injections. Some patients have experienced pain relief for six months, while others have noticed pain reduction and improved function for a couple of years.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS INVOLVED WITH STEM CELL THERAPY?
While some patients are intimidated by the thought of injections near their spinal cord, Dr. Watson has been working with spinal pain for over 12 years. He has extensive experience with the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine and has been providing minimally invasive laser surgery on bulging discs and herniated discs over that time. These procedures have also included the injection of antibiotics into the discs. The use of x-ray guidance ensures accuracy.
As for the stem cells themselves, there is no risk of rejection, as the cells came from the patient’s body.
The harvesting and reinjection are performed under local anesthesia.
When you contrast stem cell therapy for chronic back pain with the extensive risks involved with fusion surgery, this procedure is basically risk-free.
HOW MANY TREATMENTS WILL I NEED?
Most patients respond to a single treatment, although you can have additional treatments to continue to build your results. Although Dr. Watson is not his doctor and did not perform his procedures, Rafael Nadal, the tennis legend, had two stem cell therapy treatments for back pain in 2014 and he has returned to a very high level of play.