Stem Cells: Are They a Leap in Medical Advances for Spinal Repair?

physician looking at tube

Over the last ten years stem cells have been viewed as one of the single greatest leaps in medical research around the world. As stems cells are being explored for a variety of medical applications, there have been several recent studies using animals models that suggest stem cells could be used in the future to treat individuals suffering from spinal deterioration or degenerated disc disease. Most of the available scientific studies looking at stem cell treatments for degenerative disc disease are still in the early trial phase with small mammals, however some research has advanced to include human trials using stems cells to reduce lumbar pain.  It is the hope of researchers that these unique cells can lead to new advances in the restoration of the spine. So what makes these cell so uniquely qualified for the job? 

What Stem Cells Are

These cells are produced by the bone marrow. They are unspecialized, and when they divide, they can become specialized or remain as stem cells. They turn into different types of cells based on where they are needed in the body. They could turn into platelets, white blood cells or bone cells. These cells work as a type of internal repair system. The cells may come from your own body, a close relative with a compatible blood type or a donor whose blood type is compatible with yours. Medical advances have allowed these stem cells to be induced to become bone cells or tissue cells. It is believe that soon these unspecialized cells could be used as part of a targeted therapy  to repair the damaged discs in your back. 

What a Cell-based Repair Therapy Means

Because a stem cell can potentially become any type of cell in the body, it could be induced to become a cell for the inner or outer part of a spinal disc. This type of therapy is referred to as regenerative medicine. Your body is already capable of repairing damaged tissues, such as when your skin gets a cut and new, healthy skin grows in its place. The goal with regenerative therapy is to use a stem cell treatment to grow new, healthy disc cells in your spine and repair the discs that have degenerated.

How Stem Cells Could Be Used for Treating Spinal Damage

Spinal damage caused by degenerated disc is one of the most common reasons why people have chronic back pain and lower back pain. The current types of therapy for degenerated discs in the lumbar spine include physical therapy, anti-inflammatory drugs and spinal fusion. While these treatments are designed to address the symptoms, they do not attend to the underlying cause of the pain in the lower back. Stem cell medical advance treatments aim to correct the problems with the discs. The infusion of the stem cells into the jelly-like part of the discs is an emerging therapy for the treatment of disc leaks, aging discs and torn discs.

Advancements for Stem Cell Treatment of Chronic Back Pain

Scientists examining medical advance treatments for repair of the spine have performed autologous stem cell infusions into the spines of people plagued by one or more degenerated discs and for whom traditional therapies have not been effective at relieving the pain. Since the cells were derived from the patient himself or herself, there were few risks to the procedure. These stem cells infused into the discs have the potential to change into bone, cartilage or the jelly-like matrix that fills the discs. This allows the body to conduct self-repair.

Halting or Reversing Damage to Spinal Discs

More recent studies on stem cell treatments for disc damage have explored whether or not the degenerative process can be stopped and reversed with the infusion of the stem cells. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic using animal models to treat damaged spinal discs found that the space between vertebrae was increased when stem cell treatments were performed. Increasing the space between the vertebrae provides more cushioning, which keeps the bone tissue healthier and stronger. The discs in the study animals also increased in the volume of the jelly-like material, suggesting that leaky discs could be fixed with stem cell treatments. Additional studies are being conducted on whether stem cell infusion treatments could be used to treat people with back pain, disc degeneration and paralysis caused by spinal cord injuries. 

A Small Clinical Study in Saint Louis

A scientist at the Columbia Interventional Pain Center in St. Louis conducted a study on 24 patients who have degeneration of one or more if their spinal discs. In the study, stem cell products from the patient's own body were injected into the spine. A product called bone marrow aspirate cellular concentrate was used, with the goal of generating new, healthy disc cells. The patients were followed for more than two years to monitor their conditions. Only eight patients completed the full study period, but five of them reported that their pain levels, flexibility and range of motion improved.

Exploring Back Pain Treatment Options With Your Doctor

Each person's anatomy is unique. Stem cell therapies are an emerging form of treatment that have the potential to repair the damage that has already occurred in your spine. As scientific and medical advancements and technology continue to expand in the area of regenerative medicine, having a stem cell infusion into the spine may become the gold standard of care for degenerated discs, spinal cord injuries and other types of spine problems. When your chronic back pain is impacting your day-to-day life, it is important to speak with your spine health specialist to find out about the most up-to-date treatments and to find out if you qualify for the newest approaches to restoring the health of your spinal discs.