Stem Cell Injections for the Shoulder

Zaid Yasan & Lennard Funk, 2019

What are stem cells?

  • All body parts and organs are made up of tissues, which are made up of cells. Each body part has specific cells for that part. For example muscles are made up of muscle cells (myocytes) and bone is made of bone cells (osteocytes).
  • All these different cells originally develop from a single type of ‘blank cell’, called a stem cell. That is to say we all originated from one ‘blank cell’ which replicated to form different specialised cells.
  • In summary - Stem cells are cells which can transform into any type of cell in the body, therefore every structure in the body (nerves, blood vessels, muscles, bone etc.).

What does this mean for medical treatments?

  • The idea is to put stem cells into a damaged or diseased tissue to regenerate tissues and replace damaged cells with new healthy cells. This idea has been explored for many different diseases since we were able to isolate stem cells.
  • The possibility of using the regenerative potential of the stem cells in medical therapy is thus very attractive.
  • Stem cells are also known to have an effect on the body’s immune system. While our immune system protects us from various potentially harmful diseases, sometimes it can become overactivated and cause damage to tissues in our body. Stem cells could act to dampen this harmful effect.

Could this be useful in shoulder injuries?

  • Stem cell treatment is being tested as a treatment for two very common problems of the shoulder: osteoarthritis and rotator cuff tears. In either of these situations. However, their role and effect are still not fully established.

What does the research say?

  • So far stem cell treatment is in its infancy. There are also many different types of stem cells, which can be delivered to the target tissues in different ways.
  • For some blood diseases, this process has been fully worked out and there is good clinical evidence to support stem cell therapy for that. However, this is not the case for any musculoskeletal conditions (yet).
  • Currently, there is a growing body of laboratory research which is supporting the use of stem cells for regenerating different tissues, however this has not adequately translated to human clinical studies.

Stem cell clinics

  • Stem cell therapies are available on the market and many companies have capitalised on the media’s recognition of stem cell research. So we have recently seen a bloom in clinics which have found loopholes in the law to provide unlicensed treatments with stem cells, costing patients upwards of £10 000. Companies such as this will provide convincing pitches, informing patients that their stem cells will cure diseases by ‘homing in’ on the injured site.
  • Currently however, there are very few situations which are sufficiently backed by clinical evidence where stem cell injections are proven to be effective. 

Cancer-forming risk

  • There has always been concern that the use of stem cells may increase a person’s risk of forming cancer as stem cells share many of the same properties as cancer cells.
  • The long-term effects of stem cell therapy have not been comprehensively clinically studied, and we don't fully know if it could increase the chance of cancer. We also don't know which types of stem cells could have a higher risk of this and it needs further research.

In Summary

  • Currently, there is a growing body of laboratory research which is supporting the use of stem cells for regenerating different tissues.
  • However this has not adequately translated to human clinical studies.
  • It may be that some time soon stem cells will be proven for safe and effective use in tackling joint diseases.
  • Before this can happen larger, better and longer clinical real-life studies need to take place to confirm the effectiveness and safety of the stem cell treatment for these conditions.
  • You should always consult with your doctor before attending any clinics offering to treat your condition with stem cells.


For more information and a review of the current evidence for the shoulder please see my 'Professionals' section.


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