If you’ve ever suffered from chronic shoulder pain or decreased mobility due to a degenerative shoulder condition, then you know what kind of impact it can have on a person’s life. And unfortunately, many of the most common types of shoulder injuries are also among the most difficult to treat. Most of that has to do with the fact that the shoulder is the most mobile joint in the human body.
That means the source of pain that a patient experiences isn’t always easy to pinpoint, and it’s hard to prevent reinjuries. And on top of that, the delicate connective tissues in the shoulder’s tendons don’t always heal well on their own after a tear or strain. For that reason, doctors and patients are always looking for innovative new kinds of nonsurgical treatments for shoulder pain.
One kind of treatment that’s gaining favor in orthopedic circles involves the use of stem cell treatments to promote healing in the shoulder. But as a relatively new kind of therapy, there’s quite a bit that patients — and even doctors — don’t know about it. Here’s an overview to separate the facts from the fiction surrounding stem cells and shoulder pain.
What are Stem Cells?
To understand how stem cell therapy might be effective in treating shoulder pain, you must first understand what stem cells are. Put simply, stem cells are human cells that have yet to turn into any specific type of cell. Think of them as blank templates that our bodies use to construct the cells it needs.
A stem cell receives instructions from the body and then divides to form what’s called daughter cells. Those daughter cells may become new stem cells or may undergo specialization — the process of becoming a cell of a specific type. This is how our bodies generate muscle cells, blood cells, brain cells, and anything else our bodies require.
But stem cells are special. No other type of cell can divide to generate specialized cell types. And that’s the reason that stem cells are so promising for the treatment of illness and injury. In theory, they could be coaxed into creating replacement cells to heal damaged tissue of any kind. But it’s not as simple as it sounds.
Does Stem Cell Therapy Work?
Before getting into the specifics about how well stem cell therapy works to relieve shoulder pain, it’s important to make note of a few things. First, stem cell therapy is still in its infancy. As such, there’s very little clinical research to prove its efficacy. At the time of this writing, there’s only a single academic study that demonstrates that a particular form of stem cell therapy is effective in the treatment of rotator cuff disease. And the study is preliminary, at that.
But if you were to go looking for clinical trials on the subject, you’d be overwhelmed with results. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell how many of those studies represent legitimate clinical trials. That’s because the system in the US that researchers use for that purpose — Clinicaltrials.gov — is often used by unscrupulous clinics to provide them with a veil of legitimacy. All they have to do is design a realistic study and submit it to the database. There aren’t many roadblocks to stop them.
How is Stem Cell Therapy Supposed to Work?
The idea of how stem cell therapies are supposed to work as a treatment for shoulder pain is simple, in theory. Most treatments offered today involve the harvesting of mesenchymal stem cells (MSC’s) from a patient’s bone marrow. Those cells are combined with platelet-rich blood plasma and injected as close to the site of the damage as possible. In theory, the growth factors in the plasma — when combined with the MSCs — make for a potent cocktail to stimulate the regeneration of damaged tissue.
The problem is that there’s little evidence that MSCs taken from adult bone marrow can have any beneficial effect on tissue regeneration. There’s been some in vitro research on the subject that shows that the technique may have promise. But none of those effects have gone through serious human trials to see if they’re repeatable. For that reason, it’s not at all clear if any of the advertised stem cell treatments for shoulder pain work at all — beyond the testimony of patients who may be reporting nothing but a placebo effect.
Regulators Urge Caution
For all of the reasons set forth above, regulators in the US urge caution for patients considering any advertised stem cell treatment for their shoulder pain. For its part, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) points out that there are only two approved treatments utilizing stem cells available today, and both involve the use of hematopoietic progenitor cells to treat blood disorders. They go on to state that they can’t vouch for the safety or efficacy of any other use of stem cells in a therapeutic setting.
And the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) takes a similar stance, warning potential patients of the dangers involved in such unregulated therapies. The takeaway is that the market for stem cell therapies in the US is rife with scams and misrepresentations. And while patients may not suffer any adverse effects from a given stem cell therapy, the potential for harm is certainly there.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, the jury’s still out on stem cell therapy in general, and concerning treating shoulder pain specifically. And while there are reasons to be hopeful that stem cell therapy may one day be a viable treatment for a variety of pain-causing ailments in the shoulder and elsewhere, anyone that claims it as a miracle cure is embellishing, to say the least. So, in this particular case, a very old saying most certainly applies: caveat emptor. And for those who didn’t study Latin — let the buyer beware.