As seen in “A Better You” in The Orlando Sentinel by Christine VanDyk

Can Stem Cells Be The Answer To Your Arthritis Pain?

If you’re an athlete, a person struggling with excess weight ora someone who’s had years of prolonged wear and tear on your body, you probably know a little something about joint pain. Osteoarthritis, or degenerative arthritis, is a condition that affects everyone from professional football players to Sunday-morning golfers. The symptoms include pain, tenderness and stiffness; as well as locking of the joints and decreased mobility. While the primary cause is unknown, some secondary causes of osteoarthritis include trauma, history of fracture, obesity, genetic predisposition and sustained repetitive movement like that common to athletes.

Stem cell therapy can be used as treatment in patients who are candidates for surgery, for example, knee replacement, but are seeking a less invasive alternative. “If a patient wasn’t a surgical candidate, they were told to live with the pain or stay on medications,” Dr. Juliet Burry, an anesthesiologist and pharmacist with Pain Management Institute & Aesthetics, said. “Stem cell therapy offers people a real chance for sustained pain relief.”

Stem cell therapy is a cutting-edge, non-operative treatment that enhances tissue repair. It can be used for arthritic joints and tendon injuries such as plantar fasciitis, tennis elbow and rotator cuff tears. During the treatment, the patient’s own stem cells are harvested from bone marrow, fat tissues or a peripheral vein, and then re-injected into the injured area.

“Using only a local anesthetic, we remove a few grams of body fat and blood,” Dr. Burry said. “Then we spin those in a centrifuge to remove the stem cells and platelets. After that, we reinsert them into the arthritic joint.”

The platelets release growth factors that encourage the natural process of regeneration. Studies show that this therapy induces the production of new collagen, which in turn helps rebuild cartilage and strengthen injured ligaments and tendons.

“There’s a lot of science behind the success of this,” Dr. Burry said. “That’s the reason I can feel confident recommending the benefits to my patients.”

In fact, researchers writing in the medical journal Arthroscopy found that patients with knee osteoarthritis who were given stem cell injections noted significant reduction in pain, improvement in function and MRI-documented cartilage growth.

Knee pain is something that affects two out of every 10 Americans, especially now that our population has become heavier. Knee arthritis and early conditions, such as tears in the meniscus, used to require arthroscopic surgery to “clean out” the joint. Unfortunately, the technique saw little success. Another option was knee replacements using artificial joints, but they typically wore out after about 15 years. But with stem cell injections, doctors can actually stop the degenerative process and even regenerate the damaged cartilage.

“Stem cell therapy is extremely safe and presents minimal risk of adverse reactions or complications,” Dr. Burry says. “And in most cases, it can be done in as little as a couple of hours.”

While there is a cost associated with stem cell therapy, Dr. Burry claims it can be a better return on your medical spending than long-term treatments that offer little hope for sustainable recovery. When compared to cortisone injections four to five times a year, medications that have to be taken daily or the on-going costs of other treatments, stem cell therapy may in fact be more affordable than what a patient is already spending on less effective forms of treatment.

While Dr. Burry says she has not heard of any stem cell therapy patients who have returned to their previous levels of pain, she does caution that it is still impacted by the normal aging process.

“It’s like having a facelift,” she jokes. “Just because you had one at 50 doesn’t mean you won’t need another at 70. A senior citizen having stem cell therapy may get relief from pain, but he’s never going to have the knees of a 20-year-old.”

Even though Dr. Burry is the first physician to perform stem cell therapy in Central Florida, it is not a new procedure. In fact, it has been performed on professional athletes for more than a decade but, until recently, the costs were so prohibitive that it had not made its way into the marketplace.

“Athletes have had success with this for years,” Dr. Burry said, “but Kobe Bryant paid $15,000 to have the treatment on his knee and Peyton Manning had to travel overseas for the procedure.”

Now that stem cell therapy is gaining in popularity and equipment costs have dropped, the average person can afford the same relief from pain once enjoyed only by a few.

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