Chronic pain. Roughly translated as a condition of persistent misery for people. It is a serious health condition that has both physical and psychological suffering and is often associated with a specific ailment like arthritis, migraine, frozen limb, etc. People who suffer from chronic pain perceive themselves to be in a state of constant agony and distress, which can affect their ability to lead a ‘normal’ life, from being able to go to work every day to social interaction.
There are several treatment options that people resort to for managing persistent pain conditions. In this article, we talk about those treatment options with the stem cell regeneration being the most current and promising one. Also, we will discuss the potential benefits and pros and cons of regenerative medicine.
What is chronic pain and how is it caused?
During ‘PAINWeek2017’ in Las Vegas, Dr. Jay Joshi, MD, explained the connection between inflammation and pain. He states that inflammation is triggered by various chemical and physical stimuli, and is a normal phenomenon of the body to protect the injured area and speed up the healing process. When inflammation exceeds its normal extent, it conversely delays the healing process and forms this cycle of non-resolving inflammation that leads to chronic pain.
Chronic pain is a multifactorial condition. It can be caused by medical harm, injury or nerve damage. However, it can also be caused by environmental factors, for example, back pain due to incorrect posture, or physiological factors such as aging, weak bones.
Common conditions that are related to chronic pain are:
- Osteoarthritis: the degeneration of cartilage in the joint and the corresponding bones, leading to pain and stiffness mainly in thumb, knee and hip joints.
- Migraine: a half-sided recurrent headache that gives a throbbing sensation and is accompanied by blurred vision and nausea.
- Multiple Sclerosis: a chronic, progressive condition that involves nerve cell sheath damage in the spinal cord and brain. Its symptoms include severe fatigue, speech disturbances, blurred vision and numbness.
- Neuropathy: a condition that involves damage to the peripheral nerves causing weakness, pain and numbness, particularly in the hands and feet.
- Fibromyalgia: a soft tissue disorder that involves widespread musculoskeletal pain also characterized by fatigue, sleep disturbance and mood swings.
According to a 2016 analysis by the National Health Interview Survey, approximately 50 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. It is considered to be one of the most common conditions that medical treatment is sought out for. Some of the repercussions of chronic pain that agonize people are:
- Depression and mood swings
- Poor performance
- Poor social life
- Restricted mobility
- Poor self-perception about life
- Dependence on opioids
Although it is necessary to diagnose and treat the underlying cause of pain, doctors deal with pain as a separate entity and provide symptomatic treatments to save patients from the continuous discomfort it brings.
Management of Chronic Pain
Some of the common management strategies adopted by doctors are:
There are several over the counter pain killers available that are widely used by patients with chronic pain. These include paracetamol, acetaminophen, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, etc.
Although analgesics are considered safe, long term usage can produce a number of side effects. It can lead to liver damage and is specifically dangerous for patients with liver cirrhosis. Likewise, NSAIDs are known to affect the kidneys and increase the risk of a heart attack.
Drugs that are originally used to treat epilepsy can also be an effective management strategy against chronic pain. For example, the second-generation anticonvulsants Gabapentin and Lyrica are approved by FDA for the treatment of pain. First-generation anticonvulsants such as carbamazepine and phenytoin are also considered effective. However, these first-generation drugs have more side effects when compared to second-generation drugs. They can cause side effects like ataxia, liver damage, sedation, etc.
Doctors also prescribe antidepressants for the treatment of pain. These comprise of tricyclics like amitriptyline, imipramine or doxepin. These drugs can be given to patients with or without depression as it has distinct effects of pain relief and mood elevation.
Similarly, pain in fibromyalgia and diabetic nerve pain are treated with other types of antidepressants – serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) such as venlafaxine and duloxetine. These are equally effective as tricyclics but have comparatively milder side effects.
Opioids such as codeine, morphine, oxycodone, etc. are very effective against severe chronic pain conditions. However, these drugs are not available over the counter and not provided by the pharmacist without prescription because of their risk of addiction.
Nonetheless, experts state that if the dose is vigilantly managed, their potential benefits can outweigh the risks. That is why doctors carefully observe patients prescribed with opioids for chronic pain to avoid any untoward dependence.
If traditional medicine hasn’t worked, many people often resort to other naturally occurring remedies for its cure. Alternative medicine varies from herbal remedies and therapies that are naturally available in plants that have curative properties. Cannabinoids, Akuamma and Kratom plants are a few examples with such characteristics that are currently trending.
Could Stem Cell Regeneration (SCR) be the answer?
As the human central nervous system matures and becomes more complex, the regenerative ability of the body further reduces. Regenerative medicine caters for this by focusing on the 3 Rs; Replacement, Repair, and Restoration of tissues and their function. This can be directed for the treatment of non-resolving inflammation by generating ex vitro cells, tissues or organs which can then be transplanted into the body.
Stem cell therapy is a unique model of treatment that replaces injured or lost cells, which can help 1.5 billion people that are experiencing chronic pain worldwide, with 23-26% of the people suffering from lower backache alone. According to Dr. Jay in ‘PAINWeek2017’, there are two types of stem cell regenerative therapy: Autologous and Non-Autologous.
In autologous SCR, mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are derived from adipose tissue of the patient and transplanted back into the injured area, where they potentially differentiate into the respective cells. For the other type, the MSCs are derived from embryonic tissues.
Research published in Pain Physician Journal in 2017 shows that MSC therapy is a great alternative because they are readily available. In addition, their homing potential is also considered a pro and they can be grown using standard culture techniques. It has also shown that autologous SCR is potentially safe for both humans and animals.
There has been a reported reduction from pre to post-operative pain with the use of SCR. However, various complications have been acknowledged in studies. Firstly, there’s a risk of tumor formation at the site of transplantation. Secondly, there have been instances of undesired bone formation. Furthermore, there is also a risk of abnormal immune reactions to occur.
The effective results of cell-based therapy are promising, with evident results in the treatment of chronic pain conditions in osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease as well as neuropathic pain. However, there is still a need for advanced clinical research to deepen the understanding of the mode of action of MSCs and their potential outcomes inside the human body.