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Stem cells have tremendous promise to help us understand and treat a range of diseases, injuries and other health-related conditions. The potential is evident in the current use of blood stem cells to treat diseases of the blood (like leukemia) and in the use of stem cell tissue grafts to treat diseases or injury to the bone, skin and surface of the eye. Important clinical trials involving stem cells are underway for many additional conditions and researchers continue to explore new avenues using stem cells in medicine. A major difficulty with stem cell therapy is to identify stem cells within an actual tissue culture. Cultures contain many different cells and it is a challenge to identify specific cell types. When the stem cells are identified and then isolated from tissues, the appropriate solutions must be created to trigger these cells to develop into the desired cell types. The ultimate goal of stem cell therapy is to replace unhealthy cells with healthy ones and to do so efficiently, allowing proper cell functioning in the human body. One of the areas that may represent an improved alternative to invasive surgery and drug regimens  is  the treatment of back pain. Medical researchers are trying a new treatment for low back pain with the hope that harvesting and then re-injecting the body’s own bone marrow, which is rich in stem cells, may repair worn-out discs in the spine.

Painful discs in the neck or low back are common causes of severe back pain and disability. In the United States alone, more than 400,000 lumbar discectomies and 500,000 spinal fusions are performed each year for symptoms related to lumbar disc degeneration. The ability to get these to heal without surgery has been a long-term goal. Historically, therapies did not exist to regenerate the degenerative process in a vertebral disc, often leaving surgical intervention as the only option if other non-operative treatment options have failed. Regenerative therapy options hold wonderful healing potential and scientists think they represent the future of modern medicine.


To be considered a proper treatment for lower back pain some very basic questions are still uncertain about stem cell injections. The spine is low in oxygen and has no blood supply so this must be considered, as must the correct dosage and best type of cell to harvest. Current treatment collects stem cells by aspirating tissue from the patient’s hip bone or from their fat cells. The cells are centrifuged down to identify and separate specific primitive cells that hopefully will help heal tissues. Stem cells are then injected into the disc to stimulate healing by regeneration of the collagen within the disc.


There are unregulated clinics worldwide that are offering stem cell therapies that not only may not live up to the hype, but can worsen a patient’s health. There’s a big difference in risk between taking cells from your own body and putting them back in your blood, and injecting foreign cells into your spine. As with any treatment, there are certain risks to stem cell therapy, including immune rejection of the cells used in treatment. Stem cells have the potential to divide many times and differentiate into many cell types, which is their great promise. Paradoxically, because of these abilities, stem cells also have the potential to form tumors. These potential risks dictate that both doctors and patients proceed with caution, and thus it is critically important that further research is conducted.The risks of the infusion depend on the area being treated; however, there is always a potential risk of an injection causing infection, bleeding, or nerve damage.

The future looks hopeful! According to research underway at the Cleveland Clinic, stem cells may pave the way for an entirely new approach to chronic pain treatment that reduces medicine’s current reliance on opioid therapy for intractable pain.