Until recently there weren’t many treatment options for people who had damaged cartilage, whether the tissue was damaged by injury or deteriorating due to normal aging, overuse or from a degenerative disease such as osteoarthritis. Pain medication, physical therapy and surgery were the most common treatments. Cartilage damage and / or osteoarthritis cause people swelling, pain and decreased range of motion and activity level to the affected joint. But new non-invasive procedures — during which doctors are able to take a patient’s own stem cells and grow them into cartilage — are showing promise in laboratories to help keep those with osteoarthritis moving.
Stem Cells Are the Body’s “Mother” Cells
Most people think of stem cells as the special cells that come from embryos and umbilical cords, but stem cells are also found in all of us, including in our fat and bone marrow. Stem cells are able to renew themselves and differentiate and grow into a wide range of specialty cells, acting as repairmen of the body. Using stem cells to treat cartilage damage helps cartilage heal and grow new cartilage. Stem cell treatment also impedes the further progression of the disease.
There are three areas of stem-cell research that may offer new treatments for people with damaged cartilage:
1. Cartilage Grown in a Laboratory. This procedure would serve people who are relatively young and have experienced cartilage damage to an area of a joint. Doctors would remove stem cells and cartilage from the patient and place them in a gel or other material where they would eventually grow into cartilage in a laboratory. The surgeon would then implant the new cartilage into the damaged area of the joint. This procedure does not apply to global cartilage loss to the joint.
2. Stem Cell Insertion. This procedure would benefit people who have little joint cartilage left and progressive osteoarthritis with little treatment options left outside of a joint replacement. Doctors would first remove (also known as “harvest”) a patient’s stem cells, and then separate the stable from the unstable stem cells. They would then insert the pure stem cells, along with a growth agent, into the joint so new cartilage could grow. Studies have shown decreased pain, increased range of motion and improved activity level in patients.
3. Stem Cell Recruitment. This technique would be appropriate for anyone suffering from progressive osteoarthritis. It’s different from the other two options because the stem cells are not removed from the patient’s body. Instead, a protein is inserted into the damaged region and it attracts the stem cells needed to grow new cartilage.
There are clinics across the country that offer “stem cell regeneration” therapies. Their results have been promising in patients who have osteoarthritis. Even though they do show the promise you must keep in mind that some therapies are not yet approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Speak with your doctor further about these cutting-edge treatment options if you suffer from cartilage damage or osteoarthritis, along with your health insurance company to determine if these new procedures are covered.