Stem cell injections are minimally invasive and may offer long-term pain management for back pain.

All cells have a particular function within the human body. They provide structure, take in nutrients from food, and convert those nutrients into energy. They also contain the body’s genetic material and can copy themselves.

However, stem cells refer to cells that have not yet matured into a specific cell line, meaning they can become almost any human cell. They can renew themselves many times over, serving to repair, restore, replace, and regenerate areas of the body.

Due to this, stem cells have the potential to treat many medical conditions and diseases. One such condition is lower back pain.

Treating back pain can be expensive. Research states that the cost of medical care resulting from lower back pain is around $100 billion annually in the United States.

In this article, we discuss the role of stem cell injections in back pain and how they work. We also look at the procedure’s recovery time, risks, and success rates.

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An intradiscal injection is an injection of medication into the spinal disk. Intradiscal stem cell injections are when doctors harvest stem cells from the person’s bone marrow, which is high in mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), and inject them into the damaged spinal disk.

Intradiscal stem cell injections may offer an option when conventional therapy has not reduced symptoms or cured the condition.

First-line therapy for back pain may include:

Healthcare professionals may also consider more invasive treatments such as epidural injections, radiofrequency methods, or surgery. However, research states that all these treatments have limited long-term effects on healing lower back pain.

Intradiscal stem cell injections are a regenerative therapy that doctors may use to reduce pain and restore and maintain disk structure and function. Stem cell injections may also treat conditions where the bone marrow is damaged and can no longer produce healthy blood cells.

Research indicates that the MSCs in stem cell treatment can rapidly divide and repair damaged tissue. Additionally, they self-renew, so they keep working to heal the area and reduce pain by acting as an anti-inflammatory on damaged tissue.

After the MSCs reach the blood at the injured site, the blood platelets cluster, releasing cytokines. This activates the white blood cells called macrophages and neutrophils in the injured area and increases the absorption of blood vessels at the injury site.

The process also guides the MSCs to the injured area, where they replace injured tissues and aid the healing process by regenerating structures.

The stem cell procedure is a minimally invasive treatment that extracts the stem cells from the person’s bone marrow via their hip region using a needle that doctors insert into the iliac crest. The iliac crest is the top part of the largest bone in the pelvis. The doctor then aspirates the bone marrow using a special syringe and sends the sample to a laboratory.

A centrifuge machine processes the harvested cells to create a cluster of stem cells known as bone marrow aspirate concentrate, which contains the necessary stem cells, growth factors, and growth factor-rich platelets to help rebuild damaged tissue.

The last part of the process is the transplant. Here, the doctor typically passes the stem cells slowly into the body through a central line under the guidance of special X-rays — a procedure known as fluoroscopy.

In other cases, they may use a needle to inject the stem cells into a specific region. It is a delicate procedure that an experienced and trained doctor performs.

A stem cell procedure is a minimally invasive treatment.

People may still experience soreness and stiffness in the affected area and mild pain from the stem cell extraction site. It may take up to 12 months following the first procedure for the area to heal and repair itself.

The research on outcomes carries conflicting reports. A 2022 review states that the success rate of stem cell injections for lower back pain after 6 months was 40.7%. However, only 30% of participants reported any functional improvement. The researchers note that these results may have been due to the limited data available.

Conversely, other research states that stem cell therapy successfully manages discogenic back disease and intervertebral disk disease by restoring the disk’s cellularity and minimizing inflammation.

Additionally, research states that stem cell therapy successfully supports disk regeneration and partial recovery.

Stem cell injections tend to be less invasive and may have fewer side effects and a lower risk of adverse reactions. This is due to the procedure using the person’s own stem cells.

However, the following adverse reactions have occurred during clinical trials :

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • infections at the area of the injection
  • endocrine dysfunction

Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved limited stem cell procedures for blood production disorders. People should note that although practitioners may use bone marrow stem cells for other purposes, the FDA does not regulate this use.

The agency also warns of illegal and harmful stem cell treatments, so people should carefully consider all the available information before undergoing these treatments.

The risks of illegal stem cell procedures include:

  • reactions on the site of stem cell administration
  • cells moving from the placement site and changing into different cell types or multiplying
  • stem cells failing to work as expected
  • the growth of tumors

There are more conventional back pain treatment options available, including:

  • steroid injections
  • hyaluronic acid injections
  • surgery, such as an endoscopic lumbar diskectomy, posterior lumbar interbody fusion, or a disk replacement
  • NSAIDs
  • traction
  • physical therapy
  • spinal manipulation
  • epidural injections
  • radiofrequency treatments

However, these options may have limited efficacy. Although they may help temporarily with inflammation and pain, they do not typically address the underlying degeneration causing the lower back pain.

Stem cell injections for intradiscal pain are becoming popular alternatives to conventional therapies due to their ability to repair, restore, and regenerate.

The procedure is quick, and recovery times are shorter than more conventional options, such as surgery, anti-inflammatory medication, or pain relievers, which can only provide short-term relief.

To date, success rates seem promising, although more clinical trials are necessary.