When stem cell therapy works and does not work for your knee pain

Ross Hauser, MD, Caring Medical Florida
Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C, Caring Medical Florida

Why stem cell therapy did not or will not work for your knee pain

If you are reading this article it is very likely that you are exploring stem cell therapy for your degenerative knee condition or for a loved one who is facing surgery sometime in the future but is in a lot of pain now.

When opting for regenerative medicine injections, providers and the patients have to have a realistic idea of just how effective or non-effective these treatments can be. For some patients stem cell injections can be of great benefit in helping prevent or delay the need, long-term, for knee replacement surgery. For others, stem cell therapy results will be disappointing and non-effective. So how do you know?

In our clinics, while we do offer stem cell therapy, it is rare that we will use it. We feel based on nearly 27 years of experience that we can achieve similar if not better and more stable results using Prolotherapy (dextrose injections) and varying strength Platelet Rich Plasma injections. This is explained in the video below, when do we use stem cell therapy, PRP or Prolotherapy injections.

Video: What type of treatment do I need? Stem Cells? PRP? Prolotherapy?

In this video Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C, offers a brief introduction to treatments. Explanatory and summary notes are below:

Prolotherapy? Platelet Rich Plasma Therapy? Stem Cell Therapy? This is among the most common questions that we get.

A major factor in determining which treatment to get is the extent of your injury and whether this is a recent injury or a problem with degenerative joint disease or degenerative arthritis.

  • General patient type 1: Younger patient, athlete, active, or with a physically demanding job. Recent injury, such as a sprain that has not healed all the way.
    • Injury is still causing pain and discomfort.
    • This is the type of injury that does very well with dextrose Prolotherapy injections.
    • Dextrose is a sugar water that when injected into the injured joint attracts your own healing repair cells into the area to fix damaged soft tissue such as ligaments and tendons.

  • General patient type 2: Chronic problems from an “old” injury, such as a sprain that happened a few years ago,
    • Injury “never really healed,” has progressively worsened. Causing pain, discomfort.
    • Injury has not responded long-term to more conservative care options such as NSAIDS, medications, cortisone, physical therapy
    • Soft tissue damage continues, joint instability has become more permanent.
    • In this patient, it may not be enough to attract your own cells to this damaged area with Prolotherapy, in this type case we may have to put cells there by injection. Our first option would be Platelet Rich Plasma Therapy (PRP). This would put the healing factors found in your blood platelets into the damaged joint.
    • WE DO NOT offer PRP as a stand-alone treatment or injection. While PRP brings healing cells into the joint, it acts to repair degenerative damage. In our experience, while PRP addresses damage deep in the joint, we must still address the joint instability problem created around the joint. We do this with Prolotherapy. Here damaged or weakened ligaments that are simply “stretched,” can be strengthened with treatment to help restore and maintain normal joint mobility.
    • Simple PRP on the inside, Prolotherapy on the outside of the joint.

  • General patient type 3: Chronic long-term degenerative problems. Possibly in need of a joint replacement
    • This is a patient who may have had degenerative joint disease for many years even decades. These are the “bone on bone people.” They have exhausted all means of conservative care, they may have had short-term success with PRP treatments, hyaluronic acid treatments, cortisone injections, but none of these are helpful anymore.
    • It is important to realize and it will be explained in this article, that it is rare that we would need to go to stem cell therapy in many of these patients. When we do recommend stem cells it would be from your own stem cell sources and mostly taken from bone marrow. We do not offer “stem cell therapy,” from donated source material.

Sometimes a patient will reach out to us and suggest, “I had one PRP injection it did not work, I definitely need stem cells.” That is not always the case. One injection of anything Prolotherapy, PRP, or stem cells, while possibly providing relief in many patients short-term, is typically not a long-term answer. This is explained below.

When someone sends us an email or comes into our office seeking answers as to why previous stem cell therapy treatments did not work for their knee pain, they want to know if joint replacement is now their only option.

These emails will typically begin with:

  • I used my own stem cells, my chiropractor told me they were too old and that is why my treatment did not work. I should have used “birth baby stem cells,” (placenta, umbilical cord blood or amniotic tissue).
  • Some realized that placenta, umbilical or amniotic tissue “stem cell therapy,” was not stem cell therapy at all and want to start all over again.
  • Some thought that one injection of stem cells provided the answer to reversing their joint erosion. That stem cell therapy is a single shot treatment like cortisone or a one time injection given as a series as in Hyaluronic acid injections. 

Another answer is that for some people, knee degeneration is so far gone, is so beyond repair, that knee replacement may be the only option. In our clinic, we find this type of person to be the exception and not the rule.

Degenerative knee disease does not happen overnight. Healing degenerative knee disease with stem cell therapy cannot be expected to repair decades of wear and tear as a one-time injection treatment. Failure is an over expectation of treatment.

When you have knee joint erosion and advancing knee osteoarthritis, these conditions did not happen overnight. They took a long time to develop. When your doctor shows you your knee MRI and he/she shows you no joint space, bone spurs, degenerative soft tissue damage, these things developed over time. To have someone tell you that one injection of anything, more or less randomly given somewhere in the knee, will reverse all this damage, is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence. That evidence is not there.

Slow degenerative disease requires slow, deliberate treatment to repair. Stem cell therapy is one treatment option. Knee replacement is another. Knee replacement too is a slow methodical repair of the function of your knee requiring lengthy rehab.

If you put a patch on the hole, the patch will eventually wear away too

Stem cell therapy will often fail because stem cell clinicians think that if you injected the stem cells into the holes of the cartilage, they will instantly patch up the knee and the bone-on-bone situation will be gone. Maybe that will work in the short term but you still have a problem that the patch is going to be subjected to the same type of degenerative problems that caused your knee to go bone on bone in the first place. Single injection, one-time stem cell therapy only tries to patch a hole in the cartilage. The comprehensive stem cell treatment people should have explored seeks to patch a hole in cartilage and prevent it from returning by stabilizes the knee’s ligament and tendon support structure. That is done with Prolotherapy injections which we will now discuss.

Our published research on stem cell therapy combined with Prolotherapy

When we use bone marrow derived stem cells and Prolotherapy together:

Our 2014 study in the journal Clinical Medicine Insights. Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Disorders, (1) we examined 24 adult patients who had a diagnosis of radiographic osteoarthritis (this was degenerative knee diseases which was seen and documented on an MRI) and had visited our chronic pain clinic in 2009 for Prolotherapy treatment to relieve their chronic pain. The results of our study have shown that a combined bone marrow stem cell Prolotherapy treatment regimen of injections to painful sites in and around the knee provided pain relief and improved joint function.

Paving the way for stem cell therapy success with Prolotherapy treatments

In the simplest terms, Prolotherapy is the injection of sugar water into a damaged joint. Prolotherapy injections work to heal damaged joints by stimulating nature’s healing and regenerative processes through inflammation. Prolotherapy does so by causing a controlled, specifically targeted inflammation that helps grow new ligament and tendon tissue.

Stem cell therapy is an injection of your own harvested stem cells. Stem cell therapy is typically utilized when we need to “patch” holes in cartilage and stimulate bone. We explore this option in patients when there is a more advanced osteoarthritis and a recommendation to a joint replacement has been made or suggested. Realistic expectation of treatments success should be made during discussions with the providers office prior consultation.

Here are the case histories of this study:

Case history 1

  • Patient is a 69-year-old male presented with pain in both knees.
    • 4/10 on the left (30% frequency) and 7/10 on the right (90% frequency).
  • Pain had begun years earlier while playing rugby and had been more severe for the four years prior to first office visit
  • Pain resulted in frequent sleep interruption and limitation of exercise. Slight flexion limitation was noted.
  • The patient had received Prolotherapy from another physician for the previous two years but felt that improvement had ceased.
  • The patient was diagnosed with osteoarthritis and received five bone marrow/dextrose treatments at two month intervals in both knees.
  • Two months after the final treatment, the patient reported that he was completely free of pain or stiffness in both knees, had regained full range of motion, no longer suffered sleep interruption, and was no longer limited in exercise or daily life activities.

Case history 2

  • Patient is a 56-year-old male presented with pain in both knees.
  • The patient is a former competitive weightlifter who continues to do strength training exercise.
  • He complained of instability in both knees during exercise, as well as sleep interruption.
  • The patient received 29 bilateral dextrose prolotherapy treatments over five years to the knee. At the final prolotherapy visit, sleep interruption was still present, pain intensity was 4/10, and pain frequency was 100%.
  • Four months later, the patient was treated with platelet-rich plasma. Three months after plasma treatment, the patient began a series of three bone marrow stem cell injection treatments (without dextrose prolotherapy) at 2–3 month intervals. At the time of the second bone marrow stem cell injection treatments, stability was improved.
  • At the time of the third treatment, pain intensity was 2/10 and pain frequency was 30%. Sleep was no longer affected. These gains were maintained for nine months.

Case history 3

  • Patient is a 69-year-old female with pain in both knees.
  • She had been previously diagnosed with osteoarthritis, had arthroscopic surgery to both knees eight years earlier, and bilateral medial meniscus surgery 15 years earlier.
  • Pain occurred climbing or descending stairs and with standing or walking for two hours. Pain interrupted sleep and limited participation in racquet sports and golf.
    • Pain intensity was 4/10 in the left knee and 5/10 in the right.
  • The patient received six bilateral treatments with dextrose prolotherapy over a ten month period. After the first month of this period, the patient reported uninterrupted sleep, pain intensity of 2/10, resumption of limited golf, and an overall improvement of 50%–55%.
  • One year after the final prolotherapy, pain intensity had returned to 4/10 with a frequency of 20%, and sleep interruption had resumed. At this time, the patient received the first of two bone marrow stem cell injection treatments with dextrose Prolotherapy treatments, five months apart.
  • At the time of the second treatment, pain intensity was 1/10 with a frequency of 20%, sleep interruption was reduced by half, and patient-reported overall improvement was 90%. Eight months following the final treatment, the patient reported being free of pain and able to resume full participation in all of her usual athletic activities.

Do you want to ask about your stem cell treatment for your knees? Get help and information from our Caring Medical staff

1 Hauser RA, Orlofsky A. Regenerative injection therapy with whole bone marrow aspirate for degenerative joint disease: a case series. Clinical Medicine Insights: Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Disorders. 2013 Jan;6:CMAMD-S10951. [Google Scholar]

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