Opioid Alternative: A closer look at stem cell therapy

FORT WAYNE, Ind. — If you’ve ever dealt with pain – serious, long lasting pain – you likely already know some of the traditional ways it’s treated. Often, it includes powerful opioid and as we’ve shown you here on Fort Wayne’s NBC, for many – those drugs can get you "hooked."

Now Fort Wayne’s NBC takes a close look at a fairly new alternative for treating pain. 

It’s called stem cell therapy and unlike the alternatives – the pain medications that can be highly addictive or surgery which can include lengthy recovery times, stem cell therapy is a way of helping the body repair itself. 

Right now veterans are the only ones who can take advantage of the procedure and have it covered by insurance through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs but area doctors hope the general public can be included in the future and it can be one of the keys to combating the opioid epidemic.

David Jones of Fort Wayne remembers his time serving in Vietnam like it was yesterday. 

"That’s me right there," he said while pointing to a photo of him and his friends taken while in the service.

Jones said some memories are good, but the others not so much. 

"It was on Nov. 2 1968," Jones said. "I made a purpose in looking at my watch."

He and his fellow soldiers were ambushed that night. Everyone survived, but not without battle wounds. 

"I put my hand behind my lower back and that’s where I got hit," Jones said.

A purple heart veteran Jones recovered, but his lower back has always bothered him even now into his golden years. 

"It’s a doozy," Jones chuckled.

Instead of surgery or pain medications, he’s opted for a different kind of treatment.  

Dr. Daniel Roth with Summit Pain Management has offered stem cell therapy at his clinic for the last couple of years. He said it’s a rather new form of pain treatment that’s better than  some of the alternatives.  

"If you can do something to help the body or force the body to repair damaged tissue then that’s optimal," Roth said. "If we’re trying to prevent the opioid epidemic and we’re working to reverse some of these things that are happening and surgery has proven to be more complicated than what we’re doing, that would be great."

The whole procedure takes about an hour.  First the stem cells are harvested usually from body fat or the bone marrow. 

Then it’s processed for about 30 minutes before the stem cells are put back into the problem area to begin the healing. Summit Pain Management is the only practice in Northern Indiana that’s working with the V.A. so veterans don’t have to pick up the cost of the procedure.

"They have lived losing a lot of their life for a long long time," Said Dr. Aaron Nelson.

Nelson is a veteran himself and he now works at the VA hospital in Fort Wayne. He said the V.A.’s decision to cover the cost for veterans receiving the stem cell therapy just made sense.

"It had the leverage to say, ‘we don’t think this is right for our folks. We need to head a different direction and we need to pick to pay for it,’ and that is one of the strengths from being in this system."

Nelson has referred about 25 patients himself, but so far dozens of veterans from across the area – Elkhart, South Bend even John Otto Jr. from Marion have made their way to Summit Pain Management in hopes of some relief.

"I like being independent and always have been," Said Otto Jr. 

He’s a veteran of the Vietnam War. He had the procedure done on his knee back in March and he said he’s already seeing an improvement.

"I am pleasantly surprised," Otto Jr. said. "It’s improving. It’s not completely 100 %.

Jones was able to walk out of the doctors office after his procedure that day. It’s been about a month since his treatment and Roth said patients usually start to notice a difference about six months after the procedure. 

Experts said because stem cell therapy is still fairly new, the duration of relief is still being studied. The latest medical research tracked patients for five years and even after five years those patients still reported feeling relief from the treatment. 

Roth is collecting data from the stem cell therapy procedures his practice performs. He hopes to present it to the V.A. and other government officials at the beginning of the year to see if there can be some changes made to insurance to cover at least some of the costs for people who aren’t veterans but are looking to get the treatment done. 

Without insurance, depending on where patients get the procedure done, stem cell therapy can cost anywhere from $4,500 to upwards of $20,000. It’s also important that patients talk to their doctor to see if they are a good candidate for the procedure. 

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