There’s great news for marital artists suffering from all-too-common knee injuries resulting from the pounding, twisting, grinding and rotating that accompany serious martial arts training. Harnessing the body’s own abilities to repair itself -using stem cells – may just revolutionize injury recovery.

So what are stem cells exactly?

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have the potential to become other, more specialized types of cells. Those suffering from musculoskeletal injuries are finding relief specifically from mesenchymal stem cells. Referred to as MSCs, these stem cells can differentiate into a variety of cell types, including: osteoblasts (bone cells), chondrocytes (cartilage cells) and adipocytes (fat cells). Isn’t the body amazing?

How does it work?

Harvesting MSCs for injection therapy is typically done most safely in a surgery center. Stem cells are obtained from bone marrow – the hip bone being the most common harvest site. After the bone is numbed, a needle passes through the cortex of the bone into the marrow cavity. In most cases the procedure is painless—unlike a bone marrow biopsy.

The liquid marrow is drawn and placed in a special centrifuge. Spinning the marrow produces a highly concentrated concoction from which the injection(s) are given. Your doctor will use ultrasound guidance insuring both accurate and safe injections. The entire procedure takes about an hour and is minimally uncomfortable.

What conditions can benefit from stem cell treatment?

Stem cell injections are used when other more conservative treatments have failed or responded inadequately. Some conditions that could benefit include, but are not limited to:

  • Osteoarthritis of the joints
  • Chronic partial Rotator Cuff tears,
  • Persistent partial tendon tears,
  • Partial muscle tears,
  • Meniscal (cartilage) tears in the knee, and
  • Chondromalacia patella

The goal of treatment is to reduce pain and to improve function. Studies suggest an improvement rate as high as 80-85%. Some patients experience complete relief of their pain. In the case of tendon and ligament injuries, the results are often permanent. In the case of joint arthritis, how long the treatment lasts often depends on the severity of the condition.

Does this new treatment eliminate the need for joint replacement?

Not yet, but it is a primary goal of researchers. According to the website as of March 2015 there are 4,876 clinical trials (in various stages of development) investigating the use of “stem cells” and 320 trials focused on MSCs!

Incredible progress is being made at Johns Hopkins University using photo-polymerizing hydrogels that act like scaffolding for the stem cells to attach themselves to, re-growing tissues, and repair the joints. This major advancement has been successfully tested in sheep (who have knee joints similar to humans) but is still several years out for FDA approval.

Currently, stem cell injections are still considered experimental, so most insurance plans do not pay for stem cell injection therapy, unless accompanied by surgical repair. However, if you have a need and want to try this therapy, try negotiating a cash price with your health care provider.

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