Chronic back pain is extremely common in America. About 10 percent of the population has chronic low back pain. In general, 85 percent of the population will suffer from back pain at some point in there lives. In any one year, about 70 percent of the population will seek care for back pain. The economic cost of back pain in the United States is about $200 billion annually. New treatments that could reduce the cost and improve the outcome of back pain, especially pain generated from the discs, is of major interest to patients and healthcare providers.
A recent study published in Pain Physician studied two patients with discogenic low back pain. The authors took stem cells harvested from umbilical cord blood and transplanted them into discs of patients with low back pain. The patients have been followed for two years, and they have had significant improvements in pain and function. They also have had no complications. The patients treated had to fit a slim criteria: No other significant illness, no failure of more conservative care, and only a single disc in the lumbar area that had a tear and caused pain during a discogram. At two years from transplant the discs was returning to a more normalized state. In other words, the stem cells regenerated the normal internal structure and healed the disc.
Stem Cell Study
This study is definitely preliminary, since only two patients participated, but the concept is promising for the future. If we can help the body heal itself and return to normal function, it would be a preferred method to medication that diminishes symptoms or surgery which changes structure and function in the body. The process of harvesting stem cells is complex, and keeping them healthy and from being killed or causing problems once injected are significant long term problems. We also do not know exactly which discs may be helped and at what stage of injury stem cells may be of most benefit. We only know the stem cells have the potential to be a solution in certain situations. Years of further research are necessary to determine how this treatment may work.
The message to take from this research is that there is hope for the future. Scientists and doctors are trying new ideas and some are working. For a certain class of those suffering from back pain related to disc issues, there may be ways in the future to restore the discs back to health with stem cells. That said, the best solution as always is to take care of your body, get regular exercise, and work on building strength in the muscles in the area. There is no free ride with a magical solution. We still need to maintain our health and not overly stress or injure our backs. These solutions are only for limited cases, not for fully herniated discs or those with multiple disc problems.
Thomas Cohn, MD
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