Adipose Derived Stem Cells for Tissue Repair

Can stem cells be used to relieve the pain of arthritis in the feet and ankles?

Worldwide, the number one cause of joint pain and impaired mobility is osteoarthritis (OA). Just in the U.S., we spend more than 100 billion dollars per year on various treatment methods, ranging from non-invasive behavior modification recommendations to total knee replacement surgeries. 

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease, which means that years of constant demand on the joints results in the inevitable breakdown of tissue. This is particularly true for the cartilage that serves as a shock absorber between the bones of the joint.

Although the knee joint is the one most commonly affected by osteoarthritis, the 30 joints of the ankle and foot are also susceptible to OA. Those most often affected are:

  • the ankle joint
  • joints in the heel
  • inner and outer mid-foot joints
  • joint at the base of the big toe

The cartilage that protects the joints is actually amazingly strong and resilient. It typically takes most of a lifetime before there has been enough damage to allow the bones to start rubbing together and for the symptoms of osteoarthritis to be felt. The symptoms commonly associated with arthritis in the ankle and foot joints include:

  • Pain
  • Inflammation
  • Tender to the touch
  • Stiffness
  • Impaired mobility, difficulty walking or even bearing weight on the affected foot

Stem Cells as a Treatment Option

Traditionally, treatment options have been a choice between non-invasive, nonsurgical methods and surgery, which would typically be joint replacement surgery or fusion surgery. Physicians often suggest some combination of the following before recommending surgery:

  • Reducing inflammation with steroid injections and anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Medications to relieve pain
  • Physical therapy
  • Lose weight
  • Custom shoes or inserts (orthotics), pads or supports
  • Support aids, such as braces, canes, walkers   

Any time that the goal can be achieved without surgery, that is almost always going to be the best option. Unfortunately, with the more conservative methods, the result is palliative; relieving pain and controlling, to some extent, the associated symptoms, but it does not correct or reverse the damage. Healthcare professionals and researchers have been looking for ways to slow down the progression of the arthritis and adipose-derived stem cells are believed to have great potential.

Many people are familiar with the term “stem cell” but due to the controversy surrounding those obtained from embryos, a lot of people have a negative attitude toward them without really understanding what they are. Stem cells are basic building blocks of the body: they are the cells that form the raw material that is used to create all the other cells that end up with specialized functions throughout the body. Because they have the ability to be used to replace or repair other cells, it’s easy to understand the excitement that they generate. 

In the years right before his death, Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman on screen and who was left a paraplegic from an equestrian accident, was hopeful that stem cells would one day enable him to be able to walk again. Scientists and researchers believe that the day will come when we will be able to counteract the devastating effects of diseases like Alzheimer’s through the use of stem cells.  

Orthopedists are looking to stem cells that are derived from a patient’s own adipose tissue to repair and, possibly, even regenerate tissue in the joints. This would provide that next layer of treatment; more than simple symptom management but short of surgery. 

If you have questions about osteoarthritis or about any foot or ankle concerns, Dr. Christopher Hubbard is a board-certified Orthopedic Surgeon and is the former Chief of the Foot and Ankle Service at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in NYC. To schedule an appointment, or if you just have questions, please use our convenient online contact form by clicking here.