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Stem cell therapy may sound like a complexbiological process, and it is. However, the basicfunction of stem cells can be relatively easy tounderstand. Simply put, stem cells areunspecialized or undifferentiated cells found inthe body that can help renew and repair tissuesthrough the process of cell division. The amazingthing about these unspecialized cells is theirability to divide into more stem cells or becomedifferent types of cells with a more specializedfunction, for example, heart cells, muscle cells,or nerve cells.
Types of Stem CellsScientists have discovered two main types of stem cells in the past 50 years:embryonic and somatic (adult) stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are derivedfrom embryos and may prove helpful in treating diseases like Parkinson’s,diabetes, and heart disease. Somatic stem cells are found in areas of the bodycomposed of specialized cells (bone marrow, brain tissue, skeletal muscles,etc.) and are capable of remaining dormant for long periods of time until theyare activated by the body’s need for additional specific cell types, or by tissueinjury or disease.One type of somatic stem cell, called mesenchymal or bone marrow stromalstem cells, resides in bone marrow and hasbeen found to regenerate cellsthat promote blood formation, as well as bone, fat, cartilage, and fibrousconnective tissues. These adult stem cells form the foundation on which newmedical procedures have been developed to help treat degeneratingintervertebral discs in the spine.
How Do Intervertebral Discs Degenerate Over Time? In a healthy spine, the intervertebral discs are spongy, pliable pads consisting mainly of water, proteoglycan proteins, and collagen. These discs are responsible for absorbing shock in the spine and helping to facilitate the many directional movements that the back and neck is capable of. However, just like other areas of the body, discs are susceptible to the effects of wear and tear. Years of twisting, turning, lifting, and bending – often compounded by poor posture, injuries, an unbalanced diet, and other factors – can lead to the dehydration and weakening of intervertebral discs. This deterioration may eventually cause a disc to bulge or herniate.
Symptoms of Disc DegenerationBulging or herniated discs in the cervical (neck), thoracic(mid-back), and lumbar (lower back) regions of the spinecan cause discogenic pain, or pain that arises from thedisc itself. Additionally, if displaced disc material impingesupon the spinal cord or one of its nerve roots, shootingpain, numbness, weakness, and tingling can affect theupper or lower extremities. A damaged disc can alsoshrink in height and cause abnormal facet joint function,which may eventually lead to the development of spinalarthritis, spondylolisthesis, and other spine conditionsthat cause pain and stiffness.
Common Treatments for Intervertebral Disc DegenerationA regimen of doctor-recommended conservative treatments, such asphysical therapy, anti-inflammatory drugs, and low-impact exercise istypically able to mitigate symptoms caused by deteriorating discs. Untilrecently, patients with severe disc degeneration and spine instabilitywho did not respond to several weeks or months of conservativetherapies were mostly relegated to highly invasive spinal fusionsurgery. Discs are avascular (have no direct blood supply) so damageddisc material does not usually regenerate on its own like other softtissues in the body can. Now, with advancements in stem cell therapy,mesenchymal stem cells can be extracted from bone marrow andplaced in a degenerating disc to promote regeneration via a minimallyinvasive, outpatient procedure.
What the Procedure EntailsMinimally invasive stem cell therapy procedures for degenerating discsinvolve the injection of stem cells and platelet-rich plasma into adamaged disc. Then, a low-level laser is used to stimulate stem cells toencourage proteoglycan production and tissue regeneration. Overall,the procedure can help improve disc health, slow the process ofdegeneration, reduce inflammation, and relieve pain. This minimallyinvasive procedure, which can be performed at any level of the spine,provides patients who may have otherwise needed invasive back orneck surgery with an effective alternative.If you’re considering back or neck surgery, be sure to researchminimally invasive stem cell therapy procedures for the spine, andcontact the facilities offering this treatment to find out if you’re acandidate.