Back and neck pain: Could a stem cell trip to Florida be the answer?

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It all started when…

About 4 months ago a friend of mine trapped a nerve in his shoulder. He went off to the osteopath as he usually does, but when he returned, unusually, it was no better. A couple of trips later, and still no improvement, so he went to another recommended back specialist. Then to several chiropractors and a physiotherapist but still the pain was getting worse and worse and nothing anyone could suggest seemed to make any difference. He went repeatedly to his doctor too, who thought it might be arthritis, not a trapped nerve at all and gave him painkillers that made him groggy but didn’t alleviate the pain. He was so uncomfortable he couldn’t sleep at night unless he was propped up with pillows, and the days became something to aim to simply get through with as little discomfort - or acute agony - as possible.

The last time I visited, he was in despair at the thought of it - whatever it was - continuing indeterminately; over-shadowing his life. Never ending. He wasn’t enjoying going out, he wasn’t visiting his friends; he had stopped most of the activities that made up his daily routine. Anything to avoid triggering the onset of the pain. I suggested acupuncture, which improved matters, but didn’t make it go away. Massage was painful and made no long term difference, though it eased things for a few brief hours.

I put in a call eventually to Florida, to Dr Dipnarine Maharaj at the Maharaj Institute of Immune Regenerative Medicine, whom I have written about before. To see if, in his expert opinion, regenerative therapy, and particularly the Supra PRP (platelet-rich plasma) treatment which is his own therapy, might make a difference.

PRP treatment is offered widely in the States and has excellent results for chronic back pain, joint or shoulder aches, hip pain and musculoskeletal issues generally. It is medically accepted, and reams of scientific papers have been published on the topic.

I asked Dr Maharaj approximately what percentage of people, suffering with joint and back problems, in his experience, get better. He said that for the majority, the pain would be considerably better the day after the treatment, and either gone away entirely or significantly reduced a few days after that. And that over the months that followed, symptoms would reduce further, improving over time. He and his orthopedic surgeon partner deal with most musculoskeletal disorders – arthritis, back and neck pain, injuries from falls, military service and sports, and rheumatoid arthritis regularly. No one, of the considerable numbers they have treated, has not had their symptoms improved to some degree, and those who were fitter, addressed their problem earlier, didn’t smoke and followed a healthy diet, reportedly had a greater chance of complete response.

It seemed like a no-brainer to me - especially as BA have a sale on right now, with flights to Ft Lauderdale at less than £300.

So, in January, I, my friend and his wife (who has arthritis in her hands) and two others with joint and rheumatoid arthritis problems, are flying out to Florida for a five-day course of Supra PRP. We will report back... in the hope that this may be something that would help the increasing numbers of people with chronic back and joint pain - and all those other musculoskeletal problems that seem to arrive shockingly out of the blue in middle age...

Stem Cell Basics

Stem cells are cells that have the ability to change themselves into other cells. So wherever you have damage, they can produce factors needed to mend those problems, in whichever part of your body that is affected.

There are three main types of stem cells that you need to know about.

1. Haemopoietic stem cells, which reboot the immune system

2 Mesenchymal stem cells which reduce inflammation and turn to muscle and nerve tissue and bone

3 Endothelial stem cells which strengthen existing blood vessels and make entirely new ones

All three are found in bone marrow. Mesenchymal stem cells are also found in fat. However, fat is an immune organ and when it is inflamed – if, for instance, you are overweight - these mesenchymal stem cells are surrounded by inflammatory proteins which adversely alters their function.

Around the age of 40, the function of the stem cells in your bone marrow begins to decline. Ageing, fundamentally, is due to the increasing levels of inflammation in your body, which will be different in each person. If you are fit, your inflammation level, and therefore your biological age, is likely to be better than your actual age, and your decline will be less steep.

PRP is an increasingly popular procedure now in countries across the world. It stands for ‘platelet-rich plasma’ and involves taking the platelets from blood and injecting them into the problem joint or vertebra. There are two limiting factors here - one is that usually the blood contains certain numbers of “old” platelets and the second is that depending on your age, health and lifestyle, there are many inflammatory factors which are not ‘mending’ the damage that you need treated. Some clinics are using the cells from the blood or fats of other people, and this, I would suggest may well bring problems of a different kind. Far better and safer to use your own cells, which are entirely compatible with your own body and will not trigger complications further down the line.

What exactly is Supra PRP?

The ‘Supra’ bit is Dr Maharaj’s own improved version of the PRP treatment. He injects his patients (a painless 2-minute procedure) daily, over a period of 4 days with a natural protein which stimulates the bone marrow to release your own stem cells into your blood. This both improves your immune system and reduces any inflammation. The beauty of it is that you are effectively reversing your immune system age, sometimes by several years, and the effects can last for months.

On the 5th day, about 4 or 5 phials of your blood are taken. They are then placed into a machine that spins them, removing all the red blood cells and leaving a potent mixture of anti-inflammatory factors including “younger” platelets. This is then put into a syringe, and using an X-Ray for precision, injected by the orthopedic doctor directly into any damaged joints, vertebra or muscles. Because it’s your own blood there is no allergic reaction or other side effects, and the procedure is quick and with no need for anaesthetic.

Be wary of cowboys and inexperienced practitioners

As in the world of plastic surgery, there are both experienced, excellent practitioners and those less practiced, who are jumping on the bandwagon and can, probably unwittingly, cause you serious harm. Regenerative cell therapy is still in its early stages. It promises to be one of the most exciting developments in medicine for decades, and America is years ahead of the rest of the world in its understanding and use of the techniques. Dr Maharaj has been working in the field for more than 30 years now and knows more than many of the other experts I have talked to about the do’s and don’ts of the procedures.

About Dr Maharaj

Dr Maharaj is an Internist, Hematologist/Oncologist and a Bone Marrow Transplant Physician. In the 1980’s he was part of the team at the University of Glasgow that first pioneered the use of stem cell transplants for blood cancers, something which is now the standard of care in this area. His current focus is on boosting the immune system, using Immunotherapy and Immune Regenerative Medicine to stimulate adult healthy stem cells to move from the bone marrow into the peripheral blood stream. There, as they circulate the length and breadth of your body, they reduce inflammation and repair the immune system.

Calculating the cost…

It sounds extreme, travelling all the way to Florida, but, as my friend worked out on his calculator, if you add up the hours, the travel time and the cost of all his appointments to-date, you could probably have flown all the way round the world and had change to spare. And saved months of pain in the process.

I will report back…