Stem Cell Injections: Promise Or Peril?

November 13, 2019

By Tom Fontana, MSPT

Science and technology continue to advance at a dizzying pace. Treatments that seemed to be only science fiction 10-20 years ago are already here or soon will be and offer hope for conditions that once seemed intractable. One area that is getting increasing attention is the use of stem cells, particularly injecting stem cells into joints, muscles, or organs of the body and is almost certainly going to be a part of the future of medicine.

The other day I received in the mail an advertisement for a health and beauty spa that advertised that it performs stem cell injections for a variety of conditions (including several chronic pain conditions) and that made me want to do a little research.

I found that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning over concern “that some patients seeking cures and remedies are vulnerable to stem cell treatments that are illegal and potentially harmful.” [Read full text here:]

There are two facts educated consumers should know about. From the website warning: 1) “The only stem cell-based products that are FDA-approved for use in the United States consist of blood-forming stem cells (hematopoietic progenitor cells) derived from cord blood.” The “cord” they are talking about are human umbilical cords. 2) “These products are approved for limited use in patients with disorders that affect the body system that is involved in the production of blood” (emphasis mine).

Whoa! That last one is a bit of a show stopper. This means that using stem cells for uses other than for certain blood disorders is NOT FDA approved. I know there are times when it seems the FDA seemingly drags its feet regarding new therapies but other times where this meticulous approach has prevented treatments with undesirable side effects from reaching the market. When I took a continuing education class a few years ago, the instructor said that researchers have had great luck with creating stem cell therapies where they got cells to proliferate but that they weren’t as successful at stopping this proliferation once the desired effect was attained. Uncontrolled, unwanted cell proliferation is otherwise known as cancer and is a POTENTIAL risk, though it does not appear that has occurred with experiments so far.

Bottom line: there are many products that are used for treatments “off label” from what the FDA has approved them for. It is difficult if you are in chronic pain or have some other condition that seems untreatable or intractable to treatment to not seek out alternative treatments. But, that can lead people to make decisions based on hope (and hype) rather than the facts. The data is not definitive one way or the other at this point, but it makes sense to know what it is you might be getting into.


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