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Understanding the Promise and Hype of Regenerative Medicine

Regenerative medicine is an emerging field promising new ways to help your body heal. But as with many new areas of medicine, it can be difficult to separate hype from reality.

These treatments, also known as orthobiologics, are developed using natural substances, including human cells or tissues. We still have much to learn about the potential applications for these therapies, but they are currently used to help manage pain and symptoms for some orthopedic conditions, including osteoarthritis. They also can boost recovery from ligament strains, cartilage injuries and broken bones.

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the effectiveness of these treatments, which are sometimes over-promoted by providers making unsubstantiated claims.

What Is Regenerative Medicine?

The first thing to consider about regenerative medicine is that the name can be misleading, since it suggests that your body is actually regrowing lost tissue. That name, however, is a bit catchier than orthobiologics, which more accurately suggests using biological materials to help your body heal.

Feeding off that misrepresentation, you may see advertisements about stem cell therapies promising to regrow lost cartilage in a knee or some other joint. No medical research, however, has ever shown that cartilage can be regrown.

Instead, orthobiologic therapies have the potential to stimulate stronger healing or to influence your body’s anti-inflammatory response. These treatments have been shown to help with things like knee pain caused by arthritis.

This can be particularly useful for patients suffering from chronic pain or from injuries that haven’t responded to traditional treatments. But orthobiologics shouldn’t be looked at as a replacement for other treatments, including physical therapy and surgery.

Common Orthobiologic Treatments

Orthobiologic medicine has enormous potential for helping us heal and offset damage to our bodies caused by injury, age and disease. But much of that potential remains out of reach. Still, there are some areas where therapies have been shown to be effective for some patients. Those include:

  • Platelet-Rich Plasma: This process harnesses the power of our own blood to boost healing. Contained inside your blood are small cell fragments known as platelets, which are home to hundreds of proteins important to healing. For this treatment, your doctor harvests a large concentration of platelets and injects them into your injured body part. Studies have shown that, in some instances, healing can be speeded up following an injury or surgery to repair an injury.
  • Stem Cell Therapy: Injections of concentrated stem cells (special cells that can develop into other types of cells) can be used for common orthopedic or sports injuries. For these treatments, the cells are harvested either from your bone marrow or from fat tissue. The cells are injected into the injured area to promote repairs to tendons, ligaments and bones.
  • Vicosupplementation: This treatment can be an option for people with chronic knee pain from osteoarthritis. Your doctor injects a gel-like fluid called hyaluronic acid (a naturally occurring substance found around joints) into your knee joint. The hope is that the added lubricant will help reduce pain and increase mobility. The procedure has had mixed results, with many patients not experiencing any relief.

Avoid the Hype

When you’re in pain, it’s easy to get swept up in promises of miracle cures and instant relief. And the orthobiologic sector is populated by a lot of pop-up clinics with aggressive marketing tactics. Before paying for one of these treatments, here are a few things to consider:

  • Who is the provider? Be cautious with unaffiliated clinics that seemingly appear out of the blue. Better to stick with treatments offered by established healthcare systems or academic institutions.
  • What are they promising? To be clear, there is a role in orthopedic medicine for orthobiologic treatments. But this sector is in its infancy, with many unknowns. Before you let someone inject you with something, be sure there is sound science that backs up the promised results.
  • Is the treatment approved by the FDA? A 2021 study suggested there are more than 2,500 clinics around the country selling stem cell treatments without the blessing of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Make sure your treatment has been approved by the FDA or is being studied through an FDA-approved clinical investigation plan. And know that even if a treatment is registered with the government’s ClinicalTrials.gov website, that doesn’t guarantee the FDA has signed off on it.

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