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Can Stem Cells Repair Traumatic Injuries?

Many athletes and doctors are turning to stem cell therapy to address sports injuries such as damaged knee ligaments and Achilles tendinopathy. Stem cell treatment is still experimental, and most sports medicine doctors do not consider it standard practice, but it is growing in popularity and continues to become more common as we learn more about it.

What Are Stem Cells?

Stem cells are unique cells that are different from muscle-, skin-, liver-, or any other types of human cells. Stem cells are distinctive in that they can divide and duplicate themselves and develop into different, specialized cells. Stem cells themselves do not serve a specific function in the body, but they can become cells that do.

Many doctors who use stem cell therapy believe that stem cells can transform to meet specific needs when placed in particular environments. For example, a stem cell placed near an injured Achilles tendon may transform into a healthy, normal Achilles tendon cell.

Types of Sports Injuries Stem Cell Treatment Can Help

Doctors are treating traumatic injuries of various types with stem cell therapy. Sports injuries that might respond to this treatment include those that cause damage to muscles, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. These injuries may be caused by chronic overuse or one-time trauma. Stem cells may be applied to an area of injury via:

• Injection. One way that doctors use stem cells is by simply injecting them directly into the affected area.
• Stem-cell bearing sutures. In this application, the surgeon stitches the torn muscle, tendon, or ligament together using a special threadlike material covered in stem cells. The suture material dissolves and is absorbed by the body.
• Direct surgical application. Surgeons can also create an incision for access and apply the stem cells directly to the torn bone, tendon, or ligament they are treating.

Physicians typically use ultrasound guidance to ensure precision when delivering stem cells to a specific location.

Does Stem Cell Therapy Work for Traumatic Injury Repair?

Stem cell therapy is still a controversial topic in some circles because research is ongoing. However, it appears that stem cells may be able to develop into the specific cells needed for bone, muscle, ligament, tendon, or cartilage cells; reduce or prevent inflammation, which can make some conditions worse; facilitate better healing by encouraging the growth of new blood vessels; and release distinct proteins that can help decrease pain and slow down tissue degeneration. Future research is expected to show which of these processes, if any, is at work. Supporters of stem cell therapy cite the many animal and human studies completed so far that show positive results. We are excited about the results stem cell therapy has demonstrated regarding repair of traumatic injuries in Houston and around the world.

Because there are so many different factors involved in stem cell research, it can be challenging to draw conclusions based on one or even a few studies. Stem cells come from different places, are isolated using various methods, can be more or less concentrated, and are delivered to injured areas in different ways. Also, this therapy is performed on people of all different ages and different levels of overall health. These factors mean that extensive research is necessary, but at this point, stem cell therapy is an extremely promising technique.

Treating Sports Injuries with Stem Cells

If you are considering stem cell therapy as a method of traumatic injury repair, you may naturally be wondering whether it’s safe. Again, studies are ongoing, but the research that does exist suggests that stem cell therapy, performed in a single session using the patient’s own cells, is considered a safe method of treating traumatic injuries. Swelling and pain are the most common side effects, and these are generally both minor and temporary.

Stem cell injections do pose the same risks as any other injections, such as the remote possibility of infection. Factors that can increase risk include using stem cells that are not the patient’s own, using cultured cells, and using cells mixed with chemicals designed to enhance the therapeutic abilities of the cells.

What to Ask Your Doctor

If you are planning to undergo stem cell therapy for the repair of traumatic injuries in Houston, it will be helpful to collect all the information you can, so that you know what to expect. Some of the questions you should ask your provider include:

• What kind of experience do you have using stem cell therapy?
• How do injuries like mine typically respond to this treatment?
• How will you harvest my stem cells?
• Do you use medical imaging to ensure precise injections?
• What are the potential complications and risks?

Patients and doctors alike can benefit from having a frank discussion and setting realistic expectations. Contact us today to schedule an appointment to discuss whether this treatment may be right for you.

About Vivek Kushwaha

Vivek P. Kushwaha attended the University of Texas at Austin where he earned his B.A. from the College of Natural Sciences. He then earned his medical degree from the University of Texas Medical School at San Antonio, Texas.

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