Rotator Cuff Injuries: Can Stem Cell Therapy Heal Damaged Shoulders?

shoulder pain

Your rotator cuff is a group of muscles, tendons and fascia that cover the top of your humerus and cap your shoulder. As the name implies, the rotator cuff is what allows you to raise, lower and rotate your arms.

Your shoulders are arguably the most active of your major joints, and as such, they’re prone to injury, whether repetitive use-based or a onetime event. Rotator cuff tears are one of these injuries; they’re actually much more common than you’d think, and they tend to occur more often as we get older.

What Causes Rotator Cuff Injuries?

Often, tendinopathy in the rotator cuff, also known as tendonitis or more accurately “tendinosis” of the rotator cuff, will lead to a tear. This causes pain, discomfort, and reduced function. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons cites nearly 2 million people end up seeing their doctor for rotator cuff injuries each year.

Preventative measures aren’t really a viable way to avoid injuring your shoulder this way, so medical intervention after injury is the main form of treatment. Recovery from a rotator cuff tear can take anywhere from several weeks to several months, depending on patient health and severity of the tear.

Factors that increase risk of tearing your rotator cuff are:

  • Advanced age
  • Jobs with repetitive shoulder motions, such as archaeology, construction work, house painting, etc.
  • Lifting something that’s too heavy
  • Playing sports like basketball, tennis or gymnastics, especially on an advanced or pro level
  • Some of the factors that increase risk of tearing your rotator cuff include:
  • Trauma injuries like falling and twisting your arm, or falling on your shoulder
  • Weightlifting

What Are the Symptoms of this Type of Shoulder Injury?

When you tear your rotator cuff, you know. You can’t always immediately feel it, but there are other symptoms that point to the rotator cuff. First, you need to know that there are partial tears and complete tears. Partial tears are when the muscles and tendons of the rotator cuff are damaged. A complete tear is when that damage runs all the way through the muscle and the tendons, which can then have a defect in the substance, or pull away from the bone at the end.

Symptoms of rotator cuff tears include:

  • Difficulty performing simple movements like washing your hair or reaching a high shelf
  • Pain in the arm and/or shoulder with certain movements and/or when you lie on the affected side
  • Popping noises or feelings when you use the affected shoulder
  • Reduced range of motion in the affected shoulder
  • Swelling in the arm and/or shoulder
  • Weakness in the affected arm

Traditional Methods of Treating Rotator Cuff Injuries

Your doctor will identify if your rotator cuff is torn by physically examining your shoulder, locating tender areas, and likely confirming with an MRI. The initial intervention, especially in partial tears, is to rest, then strengthen the muscles of the rotator cuff.

Traditionally, doctors recommend NSAIDs, physical therapy and cortisone shots. However, even these minimally-invasive methods still have their dangers: NSAIDs, especially used long term, damage vital organs, including the heart, liver, stomach and kidneys. Cortisone shots, especially when administered to the same site multiple times, actually weaken the injured tissue.

Both these methods do reduce inflammation, but that’s diminishing returns if you consider the side effects. Not to mention that doing more tissue damage is kind of the opposite of what you’re trying to do.

For total tears, especially if the tendon(s) come away from the bone, surgical intervention is standard practice. Common surgeries include tendon repair, tendon transfer for tendons that can’t be saved, or in advanced cases, joint replacement surgery is common.

While surgery often has satisfactory results in terms of symptom relief, it doesn’t actually heal anything. Not to mention recovery is long and difficult, and you’ve actually just added trauma to your shoulder; you haven’t really fixed anything.

Why Stem Cell Therapy is a Better Alternative to Shoulder Surgery

There are better alternatives to shoulder surgery, and one regenerative therapy that is proving promising for repairing torn rotator cuffs is stem cell therapy. Besides the risks involved with any surgery, the healing rate of tendon-to-bone attachment in shoulder surgery is lacking. And surgery cannot do the same repair as what your body might be able to do with hacking your biology.

Current research in animal studies suggests stem cell injections might become the chosen alternative to shoulder surgery. When injected with autologous mesenchymal stem cells, researchers have observed several things:

  • Increased amount of fibrocartilage formation
  • Improved orientation of fibrocartilage cells
  • Better healing properties
  • Less immunologic response to treatment
  • Reduced lymphocyte infiltration
  • Increased biomechanical strength

Stem cell injections work to heal torn tendons by administering growth factors to the injury site, directing the body to repair the damaged tissue by secreting growth factors. Because stem cells are taken from the patient’s own body, there is no chance of adverse immune response like tissue necrosis. In fact, the risks of any adverse or long term side effects from stem cell therapy is minimal, especially when compared with traditional treatments like cortisone shots and surgery. It is important to note, though, that stem cell injections, while proving effective in partial tears, is not a viable alternative for shoulder surgery in cases where the tendon has completely come away from the bone.

Other Natural Treatments for Rotator Cuff Injuries

We often recommend ARPWave therapy as a part of any torn tendon treatment regimen, because strengthening your muscles and tendons with this technology helps preserve the condition of your fascia and protect you from future injury. There’s another holistic treatment for shoulder tears: platelet-rich-plasma therapy. Similar in nature and function to stem cell treatments, PRP therapy uses a plasma concentration from the patient’s own body to help heal the injury.

These natural methods of treating rotator cuff tears serve to regenerate healthy tissues at the site and repair damage, which have implications for the future of treating this difficult injury that far outrun the abilities of surgery.

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