Stem cell therapy is a modern medical technique based on the use of special cells in the body called stem cells, which have the unique ability to change their form and function according to their surroundings. During this therapy, stem cells are removed from the interior of a patient’s bones, then reintroduced in parts of the body that require treatment. Once in place, these cells can help ease or eliminate pain related to tissue injury in areas that have poor blood flow.

All adults have naturally occurring type of cell in their bone marrow called a mesenchymal stem cell, or MSC. In combination with blood components called platelets, these cells travel through the bloodstream and repair damaged tissue in various areas throughout the body. While most areas in the body have good blood flow and receive large amounts of platelets and MSCs, other areas — such as the meniscus tissue in the knees, the rotator cuff tendon group in the shoulders, and the joints — have relatively poor blood flow and don’t get large amounts of platelets or MSCs. Lack of these materials can lead to slow injury healing and/or significant pain-related symptoms.

During stem cell treatments, a doctor will use a needle to extract platelet- and MSC-rich bone marrow from bone in a patient’s hip or pelvis. Next, he will use a device called a centrifuge to separate the platelets and MSCs from other blood components, then inject these concentrated materials into injured or painful tissue that has low blood flow. Inside this tissue, the platelets send signals that “tell” the MSCs how to shape themselves and do their job in repair and healing. Typically, it takes approximately two to three months for a patient to gain the full benefits of treatment.

Some doctors also use a related technique called platelet rich plasma therapy, or PRP therapy. PRP is a form of blood plasma created by taking blood from a patient’s arm and using a centrifuge to separate out the blood’s platelets, as well as additional substances called growth factors; this separation process concentrates these materials by as much as 600 percent. During treatment, a doctor will place PRP injections into an injured joint, tendon or muscle. Once it’s in place, the PRP will “tell” the body to send MSCs to the injury site, then signal these MSCs to start the repair process. This process takes roughly two to three months from beginning to end. In addition to its use as a separate technique, PRP therapy plays a role as a follow-up procedure in stem cells therapy.

Painful conditions that can benefit from stem cell therapy and/or PRP therapy include a torn meniscus in the knee; a damaged rotator cuff in the shoulder;  tendonitis in the knee or Achilles tendon; ligament damage; severely arthritic joints; muscle tears; muscle sprains; golfer’s elbow; and tennis elbow. Researchers are also currently investigating these therapies’ usefulness in the treatment of lower back pain related to a damaged or degenerated spinal disc. Successful treatment with these relatively non-invasive techniques can potentially help a patient avoid the need for major surgery.