Stem cell therapy is an innovation in biological science and now it can provide hope to chronic back pain sufferers. Here, leading orthopaedic spinal surgeon Mr Mo Akmal explains what exactly the stem cells help to repair and how spinal cells are regenerated.
What’s the goal for patients with back pain?
The ultimate goal for patients with back pain caused by degenerated structures in the spine, such as discs and facet joints, or paralysis resulting from spinal cord injury, is to find a solution to repair these structures.
This involves using natural biological methods without the need for major surgery or artificial implants. Major surgery often carries a significant risk during the operation itself or problems that can be associated later with artificial implants such as wear or loosening.
How does spinal disc degeneration occur?
Spinal discs act as cushions between bones and when healthy are well hydrated with plenty of gel (nucleus) and a strong outer covering (annulus). Disc degeneration occurs when there is a loss of spinal disc cells, which are normally found in the nucleus to keep the disc healthy, or loss of gel that keeps the disc well hydrated.
Disc degeneration may be the result of natural ageing or maybe the result of disease or damage to the disc. The loss of water (dehydrated) from a disc makes it less turgid (firm) and more prone to further problems related to the weakness of the disc structure.
A dehydrated disc is identified as a black disc or flattened disc on MRI scan and is thought to be the precursor of most causes of back or neck pain because it provides less stability to that area of the spine. A disc problem can cause secondary micro-damage to other structures such as facet joints, core muscles and nerve endings which are all responsible for providing normal spine function. Poor spine function ultimately leads to progressive inflammation around nerve roots, weakness of muscles, facet joint deterioration, bone damage and chronic back pain.
How do stem cells work and what do they repair?
Stem cells are primitive (i.e. infant) cells that are naturally present in various parts of the body, including bone marrow, adipose (body fat) tissue and blood vessels.
If placed in the correct location, these cells can grow into most other types of cells in the body. They have an amazing ability to sense their surroundings and automatically grow into the correct surrounding cell type. They also have the ability to recruit healing factors from other parts of the body in order to repair damage in their vicinity.
Unfortunately, the number of these cells declines after the age of 25 and their potential to repair tissue becomes weaker with older age. The decline of these "magic" precursor cells may explain why healing is much better when you are younger than when you are older.
Recent studies have shown the remarkable potential for stem cells to repair degenerated discs by increasing the amount of water the disc can absorb thereby improving the shock-absorbing capability and preventing the cascade of problems that ultimately lead to chronic back pain. The potential for repair is usually better in the early stages of disc degeneration before more significant secondary changes develop.
Stem cells can replenish the spinal disc cells which normally regulate disc function and produce the gel which keeps the disc strong and stable.
Do not hesitate to book an appointment with Mr Akmal if you're worried about your chronic back pain.