Many of us are already familiar with repetitive strain injuries. They are one of the most common injuries, causing enormous amounts of pain, medical costs, and lost productivity. These injuries aren’t caused by accidents but develop over time as a result of normal, everyday activities. Sports and exercise, office work, and other occupational activities can strain muscles, inflame tendons, and pinch nerves, especially if you use an improper technique or posture.1,2
In many cases, recovery from a repetitive strain or overuse injury requires resting the affected joint or body part. Often, this involves immobilizing it or refraining from activities that aggravate it. In more severe cases, more advanced and taxing treatments could be needed, such as physical therapy, cortisol injections, or even surgery.1,2
With new advancements in regenerative medicine, though, recovering from such an injury could be much quicker and less disruptive. Already, stem cells are helping people with musculoskeletal injuries, alleviating pain and inflammation and speeding repair.
The biology behind repetitive strain injuries- what causes them and how they heal
Typically, repetitive strain injuries develop over time due to making motions in a fixed position over and over.1,2 Microscopic injuries from mechanical strain don’t have a chance to heal and cumulate. The exact causes of many of these injuries is not fully understood. However, it frequently involves inflammation- immune system cells moving into the strained area and causing swelling. This swelling can pinch or compress nerves, causing pain and stiffness. Inflammation can also damage muscle cells (myocytes), tendon cells (tenocytes), and other types of musculoskeletal cells.3
How stem cells promote musculoskeletal health and healing
Stem cells, also known as progenitor cells, can turn into many specialized types of cells and can grow and divide indefinitely. In the right conditions, they can replace cells that have been lost to injury or inflammatory damage. They also produce growth factors, special molecules that promote wound repair and tissue regeneration and stimulate new blood vessels to grow nearby, improving circulation.4
These activities make stem cells ideal for alleviating musculoskeletal problems stemming from overuse. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) in particular can turn into the cell types that make up connective tissues, including muscles, tendons, and cartilage.5 Umbilical cord blood is an excellent source of MSCs and is rich in repair-promoting growth factors as well.
The state of the science- clinical trials on stem cell therapy for tendonitis and muscle strain
Stem cell technology is relatively new, and research into its use in human medicine is still in its early phases. A few small trials have been run to test the effects of stem cell therapy on musculoskeletal conditions and far more are currently in the works. Recently, a few studies found that stem cell injections could reduce pain and improve mobility in joints with inflammatory disorders. One study showed great improvements in the carpal-metacarpal joint at the base of the thumb- a body part commonly afflicted by overuse injuries.6 They can also help repair injured tendons.5
Early studies also show great promise for stem cell therapy for repetitive strain injuries. For example, recent research shows that stem cells can help improve clinical outcomes in patients being treated for chronic tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis). Within weeks of injecting MSCs, patients reported less pain in their afflicted elbows. Importantly, these studies revealed no major side effects from stem cell therapy, even at follow-ups a full year later.3
- Hendrickson M. Protect Your Hands Against Repetitive Stress Injuries. Cleveland Clinic https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/17424-repetitive-stress-injury. Accessed December 30, 2019, 2019.
- Overuse injury: How to prevent training injuries. 2019; https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/overuse-injury/art-20045875. Accessed December 30, 2019, 2019.
- Lai WC, Erickson BJ, Mlynarek RA, Wang D. Chronic lateral epicondylitis: challenges and solutions. Open access journal of sports medicine. 2018;9:243-251.
- Trohatou O, Roubelakis MG. Mesenchymal Stem/Stromal Cells in Regenerative Medicine: Past, Present, and Future. Cellular reprogramming. 2017;19(4):217-224.
- Petrou IG, Grognuz A, Hirt-Burri N, Raffoul W, Applegate LA. Cell therapies for tendons: old cell choice for modern innovation. Swiss medical weekly. 2014;144:w13989.
- Murphy MP, Buckley C, Sugrue C, et al. ASCOT: Autologous Bone Marrow Stem Cell Use for Osteoarthritis of the Thumb-First Carpometacarpal Joint. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. 2017;5(9):e1486-e1486.