Stem Cell Injections for Osteoarthritis
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Stem cells are cells that can differentiate into specialized cell types within the body. These cells act as a repair system and can create new body tissues where there has been damage or injury. For example (theoretically speaking) stem cells injected into the knee joint can differentiate to form new healthy joint cartilage, leading to decreased pain and inflammation.
Stem cells used for treating knee OA can come from bone marrow, fat tissue, or blood. The cells can come from either your own tissue or donor tissue. If donor tissue is used, the donor is tested for communicable diseases.
Stem cell injections are rarely covered by insurance and treatments cost thousands of dollars per injection.
Does it work?
Overall, there is a lack of high-quality evidence to support the use of stem cell injections to treat knee OA. A 2017 systematic review by Pas et al. reviewed 5 randomized controlled trials and one non-randomized controlled trial. They concluded that all of the studies had high risks of bias, but the studies did show improved patient reported outcomes with stem cell treatment compared to control groups. Additionally, some of the studies showed improved cartilage growth with the stem cell treatments based on radiological (x-ray) and histological (soft tissue) assessments.
There were also no serious adverse effects in any of the studies reviewed. However, since there was a lack of high-level evidence and a high risk of bias with the studies reviewed, the authors concluded that stem cell injections for knee OA cannot be recommended at this time.
Another systematic review from 2018 by Jevotovsky et al. further supports these findings. They concluded that the available evidence supports a positive effect from stem cell treatments for patients with knee OA, but there is a lack of high-quality evidence and long-term follow-up.
Take Home Message
Limited research shows some positive results from stem cell injections for knee OA with a relatively small risk for any serious complications. However, there is limited high-quality evidence supporting stem cell injections at this time, so it cannot be recommended as regular standard treatment for knee OA.
- Pas, H. I., Winters, M., Haisma, H. J., Koenis, M. J., Tol, J. L., & Moen, M. H. (2017). Stem cell injections in knee osteoarthritis: a systematic review of the literature. Br J Sports Med, bjsports-2016.
- Jevotovsky, D. S., Alfonso, A. R., Einhorn, T. A., & Chiu, E. S. (2018). Osteoarthritis and stem cell therapy in humans: a systematic review. Osteoarthritis and cartilage.
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