Virtually everyone will have musculoskeletal pain at some point in their lives. For most, it is a short-lived pain that goes away in a few minutes or a few days. In many, however, musculoskeletal pain is a chronic, daily struggle. They wake up in pain, struggle with pain throughout the day, and pain interferes with their ability to sleep at night. Here is how doctors are using stem cells to treat musculoskeletal pain.

There are surprisingly few good treatments for chronic musculoskeletal pain. One could take ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to treat short term musculoskeletal pain. However, people with chronic musculoskeletal pain need to take these drugs multiple times a day, every day. Over time, this can damage the liver or the kidneys.

Opioids are powerful painkillers but are not good choices for treating chronic musculoskeletal pain. People who take opioids for more than a few weeks for non-cancer, musculoskeletal pain are at great risk of becoming physically dependent on the drug. Stated another way, they may become addicted to opioids.

Mesenchymal stem cells are an attractive tool to treat musculoskeletal pain because of two main factors. First, they have the ability to find their way to the site of injury and inflammation. In other words, they collect at the site of musculoskeletal pain. Second, stem cells release a large number of substances into the surrounding area that block or reduce inflammation.

Researchers have been making good progress in initial studies of mesenchymal stem cells for various kinds of musculoskeletal pain. For example, people with musculoskeletal pain caused by osteoarthritis of the knee who received stem cells had profound reductions in pain, even great relief the knee debridement surgery (i.e. orthopedic surgery to remove damaged joint tissue and make the joint surfaces smoother. In separate work, Mesenchymal stem cells reduced knee pain improved physical therapy performance and increased the volume of the knee joint affected by osteoarthritis. Similar results have been obtained in people with musculoskeletal pain and osteoarthritis in the hip and foot.

It is important to note that the procedure is safe. In a review of 844 autologous Mesenchymal stem cells infusion procedures for the treatment of osteoarthritis, there were no major adverse events reported.

Musculoskeletal pain is very common. When people develop chronic musculoskeletal pain, it can be debilitating and dramatically diminish the health-related quality of life. While more work is needed, the results detailed here provide hope to the millions of people who struggle with daily musculoskeletal pain.

Reference: Labusca, L. et al. (2015). Stem cells for the treatment of musculoskeletal pain. World Journal of Stem Cells. 2015, Jan 26; 7(1): 96-105.

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