In week eight of the NFL season, a stadium packed with people watched in horror as Ricardo Lockette of the Seattle Seahawks sustained a massive hit on the field. Safety Jeff Heath of the Dallas Cowboys would ultimately be called for an illegal blindside hit, but in the meantime, Lockette lay motionless on the field, not moving, through two commercial breaks. Eventually, Lockette would be diagnosed with a neck injury and a concussion, both of which would render him unable to play for the remainder of the 2015-2016 football season.
Concussion is a growing problem in the National Football League.
This is due in part to the developing awareness of the long-term consequences of concussion on aging football players and an abundance of caution when players sustain a hit to the head. As medical technology and research advances, more football players are being diagnosed with concussion-related issues.
A recent article in USA Today focused on one such player, Tony Dorsett, a star player who played 12 seasons in the NFL. Dorsett has been diagnosed with symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain condition that has been tied to traumatic head injury.
As his memory problems became more pronounced, Dorsett turned to a controversial treatment: stem cell therapy.
Several times a year, Dorsett and other sports professionals like hockey player Gordie Howe, have stem cells extracted from the fat cells in their stomachs. These stem cells are then cultured and multiplied before they are sent to a clinic in Cancun, Mexico where Dorsett then gets his own stem cells injected back into his body.
Because stem cell therapy is considered a biological drug (engineered beyond what the body produces), U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval is needed to offer the treatment in the U.S. The FDA shut down Celltex, the company that extracts, cultures, and re-injects the stem cells, forcing them to relocate to Mexico in order to continue to offer the treatment.
This “stem cell tourism” isn’t cheap. Initial extraction and storage costs $6,500, and each treatment costs approximately $4,000, not including travel expenses. Some would argue that this is a gamble on a young, untested treatment that is lacking in research support.
Others find tremendous benefit in stem cells for other, FDA-approved applications.
Generally falling under the umbrella of regenerative medicine, stem cell therapy may also be referred to as tissue engineering to avoid the controversy surrounding the phrase “stem cell.” This type of treatment does have a history of success in treating some chronic pain conditions. There are three types of stem cells:
- Embryonic stem cells
- Adult stem cells
- Engineered stem cells
While embryonic stem cells have been shrouded in controversy, the other two types have been shown to act in much the same way in the body to help with chronic conditions (without the controversy). Those conditions can include the following:
Stem cells are the miracle workers of healing in the body. Not only can they replicate themselves to heal injury, but they are also pluripotent, meaning that they can also divide to form 220 different types of cells in the body. This is how the stem cells present in stomach fat can be used to treat damaged brain cells or other common sports injuries, such as tennis elbow and golf knee.
Injected stem cells can continue to grow and reproduce in the body, perpetuating healing as time goes by.
Stem cells have also been proven to help rebuild cartilage, which makes stem cell injections a great option for those with degenerative arthritis conditions in the joints, such as osteoarthritis. The knee, for example, is normally full of stem cells that live in, on, and around the joint. These stems cells are also a part of the lubricating synovial fluid that eases movement. Stem cells are the maintenance men of the knee, working to repair normal and gradual damage.
As we age, the number of stem cells in our body begins to deteriorate, right along with the knee. Stem cell joint injections use stem cells harvested from the patient or a donor (or those generated in a lab) to replenish the supply in the knee. These stem cells are then injected directly into the affected joint. There is a slight risk of side effects, including infection at the injection site and a general feeling of malaise for a few days after the procedure. If stem cells are harvested from the patient, that procedure can be painful, depending on the harvest site (i.e., the back of the hip bone in a bone marrow harvest is especially painful).
Still, some believe that stem cells are a viable alternative to intense and complicated surgeries such as knee or hip replacement. But unlike hip and knee replacement, many insurance companies may not cover these treatments, so it is important to weigh all treatment options carefully.
For Tony Dorsett, the cost, inconvenience, and experimental nature of stem cell therapy is all worth it if there is a chance that it will improve his condition. He felt his memory slipping, forgetting how to navigate to the most familiar places:
“… it can be very frustrating at times, very frustrating to try to find places that I’ve been going to since I’ve been in the Dallas metroplex area (Dorsett was with the Dallas Cowboys from 1977 to 1987). All of a sudden you don’t know how to get there, and you’ve got to ask, ‘How do I get there?’ Thank God for GPS. As far as seeing what I could do to slow this down, stop it, burst it, whatever, stem cells come from your own body, my own body. It should work, but we’ll see.”
From professional football players with concussions and resulting brain disease to weekend warriors on the tennis courts or out on the links, stem cell therapies may be just the treatment they are looking for. Would you consider this treatment for your chronic pain?