Knee pain, whether it results from a chronic arthritic condition or injury or trauma, is hugely impactful to your daily life. If you already led an active life, it’s that much worse. What if there was a way to relieve knee pain without medications or major surgery? In this post, we’ll explore stem cell therapy for knee pain to understand how it works, the risks involved, and if it’s a viable option for you to find pain relief. Overall, stem cell therapy represents an exciting new treatment option that could change the way we approach pain management.

What is stem cell therapy for knee pain?

Before we explore just how stem cell therapy for knees works, it’s important to understand a little more about stem cells and why they’re important. Stem cells are a type of cell that have the unique ability to become any specialized cell the body needs, like bone, skin, muscle, and even cartilage.

There are two kinds of stem cells: adult stem cells (which are most commonly used in stem cell therapy) and embryotic stem cells. Embryotic stem cells exist in the womb before a baby has begun to develop. Their job is to divide and replicate while in the womb and become the specialized cells that make up a baby.

Adult stem cells, however, exist in a variety of tissues including the brain, bone marrow, blood vessels, skin, and liver. Many specialists believe that adult stem cells are more limited in the type of cell they can become. However, they can still play a unique and important role in healing and tissue regeneration, especially following injury.

History of stem cell therapy

Scientists have been experimenting with stem cells since the late 1950s. They first used stem cells in bone marrow between identical twins, resulting in one of the twins’ leukemia entering complete remission.

Fast-forward to today, and stem cells are used for a variety of therapies, ranging from cancer treatment to osteoarthritis repair, with a broad range of results. Today, stem cell therapy for knee pain is an alternative treatment for arthritis and other chronic knee pain conditions.

With this treatment approach, a specialist injects stem cells into the joint of your knee. The stem cells divide and take on the specialized roles that regenerate and help heal the tissue in your joint.

In 2016, the Mayo Clinic conducted the first ever blind and placebo controlled clinical study on the use of stem cells to treat arthritis in the knee. While their findings were surprisingly positive – in fact most subjects found pain relief in both knees – this was only the first of many studies that will help us fully understand the scope and abilities of this unique treatment.

Where do stem cells come from?

Most initial hesitation for stem cell therapy came from questions about where exactly these cells came from. Moral and ethical concerns stopped many people on the grounds that they weren’t comfortable using cells harvested from embryonic tissue.

However, stem cell therapy today typically uses stem cells from your own body. Always talk to your doctor, but rest assured that you will not receive embryonic stem cells for the majority of regenerative treatments.

While you can use stem cells from a donor, there is a chance of rejection, even if the donor is a family member. The practices used to match stem cells and extract them continue to evolve with technology. In the case of stem cell therapy for knees, bone marrow stem cells are the most common choice.

What conditions are best suited for stem cell therapy for knees?

Stem cell therapy for knee pain isn’t the right option for everyone. The most common uses of stem cell therapy for knee pain aim may help treat the following conditions:

  • Osteoarthritis and cartilage repair
  • Soft-tissue repair
  • As an alternative to knee replacement surgery

Osteoarthritis and cartilage repair

Osteoarthritis is a relatively common degenerative joint condition that usually affects elderly and obese people. With this condition, the cartilage in the joint breaks down, causing the bones to rub together. This can cause swelling, pain, stiffness, and immobility.

There are a number of other arthritic conditions that affect the cartilage in the knee joint. One of the other major forms is chondromalacia, a condition in which the cartilage of the kneecap wears down due to injury, surgery, or age-related degeneration.

Stem cell therapies for these conditions aim to rebuild and repair your knee cartilage. Stem cells are injected into the knee, where they begin dividing and taking on the specialized cell roles of cartilage and rebuilding it.

Some specialists believe that this therapy can not only repair the cartilage, but also prevent future injury to the cartilage. It may do this by maintaining a supply of healthy adult stem cells in the joint where the cells have previously dwindled or become ineffective due to age.

It’s important to note that stem cell therapy is not used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis (or RA) is an autoimmune inflammatory disease that causes the body’s own enzymes to attack the lining of the joint.

Soft-tissue repair

In some cases, stem cell therapy positively impacts and repairs soft tissues, like the meniscus and other ligaments. These additional benefits of stem cell therapy have been recorded when conducting studies and clinical trials on stem cell therapy for arthritic conditions.

While these treatments are still very experimental, some specialists are working to develop technology and surgical procedures that could even use stem cells to regrow torn ligaments like the ACL and MCL. This could make painful and invasive procedures like ACL reconstruction a thing of the past.

Knee replacement surgery prevention

As a last resort, some patients turn to stem cell therapy to prevent knee replacement surgery. These patients often have had limited or no success with other treatments, and suffer from chronic knee pain that would typically require knee replacement surgery.

While this may not help all patients avoid surgery, even those patients who still had to undergo knee replacement surgery often experienced reduced recovery time and increased mobility after surgery.

Part of a comprehensive approach

If you undergo stem cell therapy for knee pain, you will likely also pair it with other therapies. In most cases, physical therapy, massage therapy, or a directed exercise routine can help you improve your mobility and reduce joint pain when paired with stem cell injections.

Because stem cell therapy is still an emerging science, the lasting effects of stem cell therapy for knees is mostly unknown. While many patients report a decrease in pain in the short term, there are no long-term studies that confirm the effectiveness of stem cell therapy as a cure or correction for these conditions. Studies are still ongoing, and hopefully we’ll see how this treatment works in a long-term sense soon.

Is stem cell therapy for knee pain covered by health insurance?

Unfortunately, stem cell therapy for knees and other conditions is likely not covered by your healthcare provider. Health insurance companies typically don’t cover regenerative therapies because they are still experimental. Even though there have been significant strides in these fields over the last decade, there are no governing regulations over the treatment or use of stem cells.

Further, since it’s a cutting-edge treatment, it also typically runs at a high cost. Some individuals pay upwards of thousands of dollars for therapy in one knee. Factors that influence the price of this therapy include:

  • The severity of your condition
  • How many treatments you need
  • Where you live

Everyone’s body is different and reacts differently to conditions such as osteoarthritis. The degree of degeneration or pain may require multiple treatments, increasing your cost. In addition, your proximity to highly-experienced and specialized doctors will also play a role in price. You may have airline and hotel fees in addition to the facility and doctor’s fees if you need to travel.

How to reduce costs

You may be able to reduce cost by incorporating other therapies into your overall treatment plan. As mentioned, doing physical therapy in addition to injections may help improve your overall strength and mobility.

Likewise, using funds from a health-savings account (if available to you) can also be an option.

Finally, there are a number of studies and clinical trials in process for stem cell therapy for knee pain. You may consider participating in one of these studies to receive the treatment at a lower cost.

However, these studies are experiments, and come with their own set of risks that must be carefully considered before applying. Always work with a highly-trained and respected doctor if joining a clinical trial.

Is stem cell therapy for knee pain safe?

Most medical treatments have some level of risk, and stem cell therapy for knees is no different. Since this is still an emerging field of medicine, there are unknown risks that may occur.

However, most known risks are rare and the most common ones are temporary. The most common risks include:

  • Infection
  • Pain
  • Rejection

Further, lack of regulations can create additional problems.


There’s always a risk of infection with an injection. For stem cells, infection is most likely at the injection site where the stem cells enter your knee joint. Since you usually use your own stem cells, this also requires harvesting them from your bone marrow – another needle-site carrying a risk of infection.

Work with a highly-trained doctor to avoid this risk, and question them thoroughly about their sanitation practices and how their clinic avoids infections.


Injecting stem cells is one thing, but getting them from your bone marrow is another. This surgical procedure requires general anesthesia and can take several days to recover from.

Likewise, you may feel slight pain or sensitivity at the injection site for a few days following the procedure.


If you are using donor stem cells, it’s possible your body may reject and attack the foreign cells, rendering the treatment invalid and causing fatigue and pain.

For the best results, it’s important to work with a highly-experienced, specialized doctor who will guide your treatment and recovery.

Lack of regulation

Finally, because stem cell therapy is still in the relatively early stages of use, there are no rules or regulations that govern stem cell therapy or the use of stem cells as regenerative tissue from the FDA.

This lack of regulation means that clinics offering stem cell therapy can write their own set of rules for this practice, adding risk to the procedure. Because of this, it’s vital that you work with a well-regarded doctor who has extensive training and professional reputability in her or his field.

Learn more about stem cell therapy for knee pain

While stem cell therapy for knees are an exciting alternative to surgery or could change knee pain management, it’s still an emerging science with conflicting data and only a handful of years of research supporting it. The long-term effects and risks of these treatments are still being studied.

For some types of pain, especially arthritic conditions, there is more evidence supporting its use. If other treatments haven’t worked for you, stem cell therapy for knee pain may help you reduce your pain and get your life back. Your first step is finding a highly-experienced and specialized pain specialist. They can answer any questions you have and determine if you’d be a good candidate for stem cell injections.

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