Chronic pain, that is, pain lasting for more than 12 weeks, is extremely common. As many as 1 in 3 Americans struggle with chronic pain, making it perhaps the most common physical condition that afflicts humans. Chronic pain is a source of significant suffering; it makes daily tasks more difficult, limits people’s ability to do the things they enjoy, and greatly diminishes the quality of life.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of chronic pain is that there are usually no good treatments. Because the pain is chronic, patients who try to treat chronic pain with medications must take drugs every day. Acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can help take away some suffering, but they are usually only partially effective. Opioids are stronger, of course, but have such a high risk of causing dependence and addiction that few doctors will prescribe for chronic non-cancer pain. Physical therapy helps some, but not most people. Surgery may be able to treat people with certain types of chronic musculoskeletal pain; however, orthopedic surgery is a major ordeal with no guarantees of success. Consequently, most people with chronic pain are left with very few treatment options.
Perhaps this lack of chronic pain treatment options is what makes recent stem cell research in chronic pain treatment so exciting. Researchers are learning that mesenchymal stem cells appear to be able to treat people with chronic pain. For example, in a study of patients with low back pain who received treatment autologous stem cells (their own stem cell populations purified, expanded, and re-injected in their bodies), their pain and disability decreased to the same levels as people who underwent major orthopedic surgery (spinal fusion or total disc replacement). Another lab in Japan showed similar results.
The same benefit may occur in knee arthritis (osteoarthritis), as well. Researchers showed that autologous stem cells were able to increase the size of the knee meniscus cartilage in a patient with severe knee arthritis. It should be noted that damaged knee meniscus cartilage is one of the main sources of chronic pain in knee osteoarthritis.
Of course, the number of patients treated in these studies is relatively small. Larger studies will be required to confirm that mesenchymal stem cells can treat chronic pain. However, these results are intriguing, since a staggering number of studies show autologous stem cell treatment to be safe. Indeed, mesenchymal stem cell treatment is now widely available in clinics and medical practices.
Reference: Waterman R. et al. (2011). Treating Chronic Pain with Mesenchymal Stem Cells: A Therapeutic Approach Worthy of Continued Investigation. Journal of Stem Cell Research & Therapy. 2011, S2 DOI: 10.4172/2157-7633.S2-001.