Thanks to scientific advances, stem cells are being used as a go-to treatment option for a variety of illnesses and diseases. Although stem cell therapies have been transformative in a variety of medical fields and specialties, nowhere has it made a bigger impact than in the field of orthopedics, and especially in treating chronic knee problems.
Stem Cells: An Effective Treatment Alternative
Each year, approximately 600,000 Americans undergo knee replacement surgery. And, as the American population continues to age, the number of knee replacements is only likely to increase. In fact, some estimates suggest that in the next 10-15 years, there will be more than 3 million knee replacements each year. Although most people do very well following knee replacement surgery, it is important to remember that it is a major surgery; and major surgeries may come with significant complications. For example, patients may experience post-surgical infections which can be costly and time-intensive to address. Also, some patients struggle during the rehab process. And, surgery and the recovery process can result in dramatic losses in workplace productivity.
The cost of the surgery and post-surgery rehab is also extremely high. Given that medical costs continue to skyrocket around the country, with increases in costs far outstripping the average inflation rate, one would likely expect the costs for this surgery to also grow.
And side effects and costs are not the only problematic elements of knee replacement surgery. Some studies suggest that knee replacement surgeries are not permanent solutions to people’s knee pain. In fact, one recent study noted that up to 20 percent of patients experience chronic knee pain post-surgery. Given the inherent risks with this surgical approach, one would hope for better results than this.
Given all of the concerns noted above, it is perhaps not surprising that medical professions have begun to look for an alternative way to treat knee pain. One method that has emerged, generating positive reports from researchers, medical professionals, and patients alike, is stem cell injections into the injured or arthritic knee.
Stem Cell Injections: A Non-Surgical Approach
An increasing number of reliable scientific studies seem to indicate that stem cell injections may be a promising approach for patients with chronic knee pain, offering better sustained results than surgical replacements without carrying all of the risks of knee surgery.
What happens in a stem cell injection? In the stem cell injection process, adult stem cells are harvested. These stem cells are then injected directly into the injured or achy knee. Most commonly, the person with the knee problem is suffering from osteoarthritis, a condition in which knee cartilage begins to degenerate. The underlying causes for osteoarthritis may vary dramatically.
Once these stem cells are injected into the knee, the cells can generate a wide range of positive effects. First, these newly injected cells can differentiate and develop into critical cartilage cells in the knees. If degenerating cartilage is the source of pain, then more cartilage will seemingly help mitigate this pain. The stem cells may also help fight inflammation in the damaged knee, helping ease some of the pain and other symptoms that patients may be experiencing. And, these are not the only benefits. Research also suggests that stem cells may release cytokines. Cytokines may generate a wide range of benefits for the patient, such as decreased inflammation and a dramatically slowed down degeneration process.
Almost as exciting as the benefits generated by stem cell injections is the fact that these stem cell injections have very few side effects … especially when compared with traditional surgical interventions. Generally, side effects are limited to minor pain and swelling at the injection site. And, these side effects usually resolve very quickly. These limited side effects mean that people are able to return to their normal life and activities much more quickly than they would with a surgical knee replacement.
Are there any downsides to pursuing a stem cell transplant compared with more traditional approaches? The quick answer to this question is no. However, there is one potential drawback. Stem cell injections are significantly cheaper than surgical knee replacements, generally costing between $3 and 5,000 per knee. However, many insurance companies do not cover this cheaper alternative; and, many patients lack the resources to be able to pay these costs out-of-pocket. Over time, as more study results become available, it is hoped that treatment costs will increasingly be covered.
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Other Options For Orthopedic Patients
Even though much of the attention on stem cell therapy and orthopedics has been focused on stem cell injections as an alternative to knee replacement, this does not mean that it is the only area in which stem cells may offer breakthrough alternatives for orthopedic patients. In fact, stem cells may be useful in a wide range of other injuries and conditions. Originally, doctors focused on how stem cells could help heal bone and joint injuries, believing that stem cells when implanted into a patient would successfully differentiate into bone and cartilage cells. And, by and large, this has happened. But, research also indicates that these stem cells may be effective in healing soft tissue injuries, such as damage to ligaments and tendons.
Another potential use of stem cell therapy is to treat a wide range of bone cancers, such as bone cancer, as well as more rare diseases, including osteogenesis imperfecta (which is brittle bone disease). Brittle bone disease is a genetic abnormality which may result in frequent bone breaks. Stem cells may strengthen the bones and prevent these breaks from occurring.
Much of this research, unfortunately, is still in relatively early stages. Additional laboratory testing, as well as testing on human subjects, needs to be carried out to determine how effective these interactions are likely to be.
Stem cell therapy has offered new breakthroughs and renewed optimism for patients with a variety of illnesses and conditions that have, for a variety of reasons, failed to respond to more traditional treatment approaches. Nowhere have stem cells displayed more promising results than when they have been utilized in orthopedic cases.
One of the most common orthopedic conditions that is treated each year in the United States is knee replacement (either on one or both legs). This surgery is likely to become even more common in the years to come as the American population continues to age. Although knee replacement can generate positive outcomes for many patients, it still comes with certain risks. These risks include: extended rehabilitation and recovery, post-surgical infections, and chronic pain post-surgery. All of these side effects contribute to significant costs for knee replacement, both for patients and for society as a whole. In recent years, scientists have discovered that stem cell injections may prove to be a lower cost and lower risk alternative; and initial results have been promising. Patients see a dramatic and sustained improvement in their symptoms. These results often exceed the results seen in surgical interventions.
But, this is not the only promising area in which stem cell therapy can be utilized. Early stage testing indicates that it may also be a key treatment methodology for people suffering from a variety of rare genetic conditions, as well as for various soft tissue injuries.
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