An estimated thirty million people in the United States suffer with back pain, with many contemplating back surgery for pain relief. Where degenerative disc disease, or disc herniation, is the cause of the back pain it is often necessary to remove the damaged disc, provide an intervertebral disc replacement, and/or perform a spinal fusion procedure to stabilize the spine. In recent years biotechnology companies have been vying for a piece of the lucrative orthopedic market by creating stem cell products for spinal health. Where possible, it is usually better to minimize the amount of tissue excised during back surgery in order to keep the spine stable and the use of stem cells for disc repair promises to do just that, so how does this innovative back surgery work and is it right for your back pain?
Degenerative Disc Disease
According to a report by Frost and Sullivan, of the thirty million Americans experiencing back pain some fifteen percent find no relief from physical therapy and medication and are, instead, looking at spine surgery to treat their condition. This means that around four and a half million people suffer chronic back pain in the US, but questions over surgical candidacy mean that some four million remain untreated as they are unable to undergo disc replacement surgery or spinal fusion. Damaged discs are commonly caused by gradual wear and tear over the years, along with acute injury when playing sports, suffering a fall or whiplash-type accident, or where another condition such as arthritis, scoliosis, or systemic inflammatory disease causes cartilage to break down more quickly. Degenerative disc disease is thought to exist, to some degree, in approximately fifteen to forty five percent of the population and the condition may create back pain, numbness, weakness, and altered sensation from pinched nerves, spinal slippage and deformity, incontinence, and mobility issues.
Treating Back Pain and Disc Degeneration
The intervertebral discs are a combination of a tough and fibrous outer shell and a softer, gel-like, inner that helps to cushion the movement of the spine and acts as a shock absorber. Too many shocks to a brittle and dry disc can cause it to rupture, bulge, or tear and the inner material to leak out and cause inflammation and compression of the spinal nerves. Treatments to restore the integrity of the intervertebral discs are few and far between with most patients simply treating the symptoms and/or having back surgery such as a discectomy and spinal fusion. Physical therapy and non-surgical decompression can help to encourage a bulging disc to return to its proper position or even aid a herniated disc as it heals itself but many patients need more invasive means to restore spinal health and relieve back pain.
Stem Cell Treatment for Back Pain
This is where stem cell treatment for back pain comes in as companies such as Mesoblast have created stem cell products to encourage repair of damaged spinal discs and avoid back surgery to remove the disc entirely. Allogeneic adult stem cells injected into the degenerated discs have been found in trials to restore the disc’s strength by encouraging the proper growth of cartilage and collagenous material, thus normalizing damaged discs, their function, and the spinal anatomy. Using this kind of stem cell treatment for disc repair means that those patients unable to have back surgery and unable to find relief through pain medication have an additional option to improve quality of life with back pain.
How Stem Cell Treatment for Back Pain Works
Mesenchymal precursor cells (MPCs) injected into the intervertebral discs are capable of producing the proteoglycans that form the discs themselves. The procedure is relatively non-invasive, is cost-effective compared to surgery, has the capacity to postpone or remove the need for back surgery at a later date, and poses little risk of side-effects. There is also the potential to use stem cell treatment such as this in conjunction with a discectomy in order to reduce the risk of additional surgery being needed later on. More than half of all patients undergoing a discectomy experience a loss in disc height afterwards, resulting in symptoms of spinal stenosis and the potential to need additional spinal fusion or other stabilizing procedure. MPCs can help restore and maintain disc height and keep the spine strong and stable.
Results from recent trials continue to add support for the use of stem cells for disc repair, giving hope to millions in pain and unable to have back surgery.