Stem Cell Therapy for Lower Back Pain Moves Closer

By A. Rahman Ford, PNN Columnist

There’s good news on the horizon for those who suffer from lower back pain due to disc degeneration.

Mesoblast, an Australian biotech company, has partnered with Grunenthal, a large German pharmaceutical company, to commercialize an investigational stem cell product called MPC-06-ID -- a stem cell formula comprised of mesenchymal cells derived from the bone marrow of healthy volunteers. Mesoblast could receive up to $1 billion from Grunenthal if the treatment is successful.

MPC-06-ID is currently in a Phase III placebo-controlled trial in the U.S. In the trial, millions of stem cells grown in a laboratory are injected into the patients’ degenerated discs with the goal of reducing inflammation and causing the discs to regenerate.

In previous trials, 47% of those who received the injection had a significant reduction in pain 12 months later. The results persisted for three years.

The estimated study completion date for the Phase III trial is March 2021. So, unfortunately, there is a bit of a wait. But Mesoblast is hopeful the study findings will result in FDA approval.

The company is also studying a stem cell product for chronic lower back pain. More on Mesoblast’s products and how they treat back pain can be found here.


What does this mean? First and foremost, it’s great news for people suffering from back pain. This is a population that is woefully underserved by conventional medicine. Limited options include analgesics like opioids, which are increasingly difficult to obtain, and spinal surgery that is costly, often ineffective and can even exacerbate the problem. I have previously written about these issues here.

Clinicians around the country have been using stem cell therapy (SCT) for years to treat back pain and even difficult spinal conditions like arachnoiditis. However, these clinics have been operating under the scythe of potential persecution for using products not approved by the FDA.

Not only has this placed them squarely in the crosshairs of regulatory authorities which issue warning letters and file lawsuits, but it has also subjected them to internet censorship by Google and others.

The Mesoblast-Grunenthal partnership is indicative of the fact that major corporate investment in SCT is increasing -- and that can be a great thing for consumer choice. More and more biotech investors are recognizing that SCT is the future of medicine, especially when it comes to treating conditions caused by chronic inflammation. Forbes reports that the market size of the SCT industry was $8.65 billion in 2018, with a projected annual growth rate of 8.8%.

We saw recent evidence of this trend with Bayer’s acquisition of Bluerock Therapeutics’ and its stem cell treatments for Parkinson’s disease and other chronic illnesses. And Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals recently acquired Semma Therapeutics for $950 million in a bet that its SCT products could cure type 1 diabetes.

Why is the SCT market so robust? Transparency Market Research attributes it to a “rise in consumer awareness.” In other words, people are desperate for relief and looking for new treatments. Suffice it to say, any additional treatment option for those suffering from back pain is more than welcome.

A. Rahman Ford.jpg

A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Howard Law Journal.

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food. He has received stem cell treatment in China. 

The information in this column is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Physical Therapy for Back Pain Lowers Healthcare Costs

By Pat Anson, Editor

If you have lower back pain and get it treated with physical therapy first, you are significantly less likely to later need opioid medication or high cost medical services, according to a new study in Health Services Research.

Researchers at the University of Washington and George Washington University analyzed health insurance claims for over 50 million people from 2009 to 2013, tracking patients who had a new diagnosis of lower back pain.

Compared with patients who saw a physical therapist later or not at all, those who saw a physical therapist first had an 89% lower probability of having an opioid prescription, a 28% lower probability of having an MRI or advanced imaging, and a 15% lower probability of having an emergency department visit. Their healthcare costs were also significantly lower for out-patient care, pharmacy and out-of-pocket expenses.

“We found important relationships among physical therapy intervention, utilization, and cost of services and the effect on opioid prescriptions," said co-author Ken Harwood, PT, a professor of physical therapy at George Washington University.

One unexpected finding is that patients who had physical therapy first had a 19% greater chance of being hospitalized.

“Having an in-patient hospitalization is not necessarily a bad outcome for a patient. PTs (physical therapists) provide care that aims to resolve LBP (lower back pain) by addressing musculoskeletal causes first, but if the problem does not get resolved, PTs may refer patients appropriately for more specialized care,” the study found.


One out of every four Americans will experience at least one day of lower back pain every three months. Researchers say about half will be treated with opioid medication, while physical therapy (12%), exercise (19%) and psychological therapy (8%) will be recommended far less often.    

"Given our findings in light of the national opioid crisis, state policymakers, insurers, and providers may want to review current policies and reduce barriers to early and frequent access to physical therapists as well as to educate patients about the potential benefits of seeing a physical therapist first," said lead author Bianca Frogner, PhD, a professor and health economist at the University of Washington Center for Health Workforce Studies.

Lower back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability, affecting about 540 million people at any given time. But there is little consensus on the best way to treat it.

A recent series of reviews appearing in The Lancet medical journal found that lower back pain is usually treated with inappropriate tests, risky surgeries and painkillers.

“The majority of cases of low back pain respond to simple physical and psychological therapies that keep people active and enable them to stay at work,” said lead author Professor Rachelle Buchbinder of Monash University in Australia. “Often, however, it is more aggressive treatments of dubious benefit that are promoted and reimbursed.”

5 DIY Tips to Reduce Lower Back Pain

By Mark El-Hayek, Guest Columnist

Lower back pain is the world's leading cause of disability. Almost all of us will at some point in our lives have to deal with it.

Lower back pain is any form of pain or discomfort in the lower part of the spine, which is known as the lumbar spine. It can be brought about by things like muscle tension, stress, improper diet, lack of exercise, poor posture, excess body weight and pregnancy.

We put together five simple do-it-yourself tips to help reduce lower back pain.

1) Correct Posture

Poor posture is one of the leading causes of lower back pain. Good posture involves sitting, walking, standing and sleeping in ways that do not weaken or over activate your supporting muscles. There are several things you can do to improve posture.

When sitting, avoid sitting on the edge of a chair as this puts a lot of strain on your back. Sit with your back straight and shoulders back.

The same is true for walking. Avoid bending or slouching over while walking. This strains your back and causes lower back pain.


When lying down, get into a position that is comfortable and one that does not compromise the curve in your back.

2) Ice and Heat

For many people, putting ice or something cold on an injured area provides relief from pain. Heat also works well in reducing lower back pain, but the two techniques work very differently.

When you put something cold on your lower back, the cold makes the blood vessels constrict, which reduces the pain caused by inflammation. Heat, on the other hand, relaxes blood vessels and increases blood flow, which helps heal the affected area.

It is advisable that when using ice and heat together, you start by doing the cold compress first and then the hot compress. You can use ice packs or frozen peas for the cold compress. For the hot compress, you can use a hot water bottle or a towel soaked in warm water.

Alternate between the cold and hot compresses for a few minutes and you will notice that your lower back pain has reduced.

3) Exercise

Regular exercise is a good way to prevent lower back pain. Make a point of exercising as often as you can. If you have a job that has you sitting for long hours, integrate exercises and movement into your everyday routine.

Walk to the bathroom or the water cooler a couple of times a day to keep your joints moving and lower back pain at bay. Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator to help stay fit.

4) Rest

Lower back pain is often caused by stress. The moment you start feeling back pain, take a couple of hours off to rest. You can start by taking a hot shower to help you relax. The shower will help your blood vessels relax and make oxygen flow freely to your lower back. After the hot shower, rest for a couple of hours and you will probably feel better.

5) Do not stay in bed too long

While resting is important, make sure you do not stay in bed too long. Lying down for an extended period of time, especially when your posture is poor or you do not have a good mattress, could increase your lower back pain. Instead of lying down, go for a slow walk to allow your joints and muscles to move and reduce inflammation.

Mark photo2.jpg

Mark El-Hayek graduated from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia with a Masters of Chiropractic and a Bachelor of Medical Science.  He is the head chiropractor and owner of Spine and Posture Care in Sydney.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

A Promising Solution to Lower Back Pain

By A. Rahman Ford, Columnist

As many of us can attest to, lower back pain (LBP) is a debilitating and painful medical condition that severely impacts quality of life.  An analysis of the Global Burden of Disease in 2010 showed that LBP ranked as the greatest contributor to disability out of nearly 300 conditions studied. 

Lower back pain tends to peak in older age groups; thus, regions with higher life expectancies are disproportionately impacted.  The number of people with LBP is projected to increase in the coming decades, especially in low- and middle-income countries.  About 149 million work days are lost every year in the U.S. because of LBP, at an estimated cost of $100-200 billion.  

Of course, the costs to the patient – both financial and emotional – can never be adequately quantified.

Tough Questions, Few Answers

Although the causes of LBP generally are multifarious, the National Institutes of Health maintains that the majority of cases are mechanical in nature.   The gradual degeneration of the spine as a result of normal wear and tear – referred to as spondylosis – can result in a myriad of painful conditions that range from simple sprains, to herniated or ruptured discs, to injuries caused by trauma. 

While the causes of lower back pain are rarely addressed, analgesic medications are routinely prescribed to treat its symptoms.  Commonly prescribed medications include opioids, NSAIDS, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, counter-irritants and epidural steroid injections.

However, these analgesic treatments have shortcomings: potentially dangerous side-effects, adverse drug interactions, addiction, organ damage or only temporary relief.  Other treatment options include physical therapy, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), acupuncture and in extreme cases, surgery. 

Sadly, neither the conservative management nor the more invasive surgical options consistently yield satisfactory results, because they fail to address the underlying disease processes.  In fact, some treatments may actually lead to a worsening of the condition in the long term.  Undoubtedly, new approaches are needed to solve the problem.


Research Supports Stem Cells for LBP

Many cases of lower back pain involve structural damage to the intervertebral discs, either by way of a herniated disc or degenerative disc disease (DDD).  This condition is quite prevalent among older adults, with one study finding that 95% of older Americans exhibiting some degree of disc degeneration. 

In the search for treatments beyond analgesics and surgery, several researchers have demonstrated the effectiveness of stem cell therapy in treating disc injuries in both humans and animals. 

Leung et al. (2006) and Drazin et al. (2012) noted the potential for mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) to treat intravertebral disc degeneration in laboratory animals.  Orozco et al. (2011) used autologous bone marrow-derived MSCs to treat 10 patients with lumbar disc degeneration, who exhibited rapid improvement in pain and disability. 

Similarly, Pettine et al. (2015) reported significantly reduced pain scores in 26 patients who received autologous bone marrow-derived stem cells. 

Coming to a Clinic Near You?

Just this year, Centeno et al. successfully used an injection of autologous bone marrow derived MSCs to treat DDD in 33 patients with lower back pain.  The authors found “no safety issues, substantially reduced pain, increased function and reduced disc bulge size in most patients.”

That treatment utilized stem cell technology created by BioRestorative Therapies, which uses autologous bone marrow-derived MSCs to treat chronic lumbar disc disease.  According to the company’s website, “not only could this program potentially eliminate surgery in many cases, but it could also provide substantially more effective treatment than current non-invasive therapies with a design to be curative.”  The company has been cleared by the FDA for Phase 2 clinical trials to treat lower back pain due to DDD.

DiscGenics, a biotech company based in Utah, has also received FDA approval for a study of stem cell therapy to treat patients with intervertebral disc disease. DiscGenics’ approach is different, because it uses patented technology to derive its proprietary “discogenic cells” directly from adult human disc tissue.

“We believe it has the potential to offer pain relief and restored function to millions of patients suffering from the debilitating effects of lower back pain,” DiscGenics CEO Flagg Flanagan told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Receiving the go-ahead from the agency to begin in-human trials is a critical step forward for our clinical program.”

DiscGenics plans to begin enrolling 60 patients in the study before the end of the year.  

Although both BioRestorative and DiscGenics have therapies that look promising, it will be some time – likely years – before either treatment is publicly available. But these studies could be a major step forward in finding an actual cure for back pain, not just another treatment that masks the pain.

A. Rahman Ford.jpg

A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor in Chief of the Howard Law Journal. He earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food. He has received stem cell treatment in China.  

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Do Depression and Back Pain Lead to More Opioids?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Depressed patients with low back pain were twice as likely to be prescribed an opioid medication and to receive higher doses, according to the results of a new study that looked at data from a decade ago.

Lower back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability and the most common condition for which opioids are prescribed. Nearly a quarter of the opioid prescriptions written in the U.S. are for low back pain.

"Our findings show that these drugs are more often prescribed to low back pain patients who also have symptoms of depression and there is strong evidence that depressed patients are at greater risk for misuse and overdose of opioids," said John Markman, MD, director of the Department of Neurosurgery's Translational Pain Research Program at the University of Rochester Medical Center and senior author of the study published in the journal PAIN Reports.

The researchers found that patients who screened positive for depression were more than twice as likely to be prescribed an opioid, and they received twice the cumulative dose of opioids per year.

This not only suggests that doctors were more likely to prescribe opioids to a patient suffering both physically and psychologically, but it also implies that analgesics are less effective in pain patients who are depressed.

One obvious weakness of the study is that it relied on prescription data from 2004 to 2009 that was compiled by the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, a federal survey of patients, their families, healthcare providers and employers. That time frame coincides with a steep rise in opioidprescribing, but does not represent the current environment in which opioid medication is harder to obtain.

The researchers believe, however, that understanding prescribing patterns from a decade ago may help improve the effectiveness of clinical trials. Low back pain is the condition most often studied to approve new pain medications, and depressed patients are often excluded from trials because of incentives to get positive findings about a new analgesic.

“Because several pivotal clinical trials for opioid treatment of LBP (low back pain) have systematically excluded the most depressed patients, it is probable that clinicians and patients alike are drawing conclusions from a study group that may differ in important ways from likely opioid recipients. These clinical trial populations may underrepresent the patients most likely to receive opioids, especially those who are mostly likely to receive higher dosages for longer durations,” Markman said.

Lower back pain may be the world’s leading cause of disability, but there is surprisingly little evidence about the best ways to treat it.

A recent review of 20 clinical studies involving nearly 7,300 patients found that opioids provide only “modest” short-term relief from lower back pain. Opioids were also no more effective than non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). About half of the patients involved in the studies dropped out because they didn’t like the side-effects of opioids or because they found them to be ineffective.

Steroid Injections Provide Little Relief for Back Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Steroid injections provide only short term relief for patients suffering from chronic low back pain, according to a new study funded by the French Ministry of Health that was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Researchers evaluated 135 patients with discopathy – degenerative disc disease -- who were being treated at three different clinics in France. Half the patients were assigned to a control group and the rest received a single glucocorticoid (steroid) injection into their lower back.

A little over half of the patients who received the injection reported positive effects on back pain after one month. But the effect was only temporary and decreased over time, with no differences in back pain intensity after 12 months when compared to the control group.

“Given these findings, the researchers question the efficacy of glucocorticoid injections as a treatment for chronic low back pain,” the American College of Physicians said in a news release.

The French study adds to a growing body of evidence questioning the effectiveness and safety of steroid injections into the spinal area.

A 2015 report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) found little evidence that epidural steroid injections were effective in treating low back pain. Researchers said the injections often provide immediate improvements in pain and function, “but benefits were small and not sustained, and there was no effect on long-term risk of surgery.”

A 2014 study by the AHRQ also found that epidural injections did little to relieve pain in patients with spinal stenosis.  

Epidural injections, which have long been used to relieve pain during childbirth, are increasingly being used as an alternative to opioids in treating back pain. The shots have become a common and sometimes lucrative procedure at many pain management clinics, where costs vary from as little as $445 to $2,000 per injection.

The Food and Drug Administration has never approved the use of steroids to treat back pain, but several million epidural steroid injections are still performed “off label” in the U.S. annually.

The American College of Physicians (ACP) recently released new guidelines saying there was little evidence that steroid injections are effective as a treatment for low back pain.

“Moderate-quality evidence showed no differences in pain between systemic corticosteroids and placebo and no to small effect on function in patients with radicular low back pain,” the ACP said.

Lower back pain is the world's leading cause of disability. Over 80 percent of adults have low back pain at some point in their lives.

Lower Back Pain Linked to More Drug Use

By Pat Anson, Editor

People with chronic lower back pain are more likely to have used illicit drugs -- including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine -- compared to those without back pain, according to new research published in the journal Spine.

The study also found that people with lower back pain who had used illicit drugs were somewhat more likely to have an active prescription for opioid pain medication (22.5% vs. 15%).

Lower back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability and most people will suffer from it at least once in their lives. Although nearly a quarter of the opioid prescriptions written in the U.S. are for low back pain, medical guidelines often recommend against it.

Researchers analyzed data from over 5,000 U.S. adults who participated in a nationally representative health study and found that nearly half (49%) of those who reported lower back pain admitted having a history of illicit drug use, compared to 43% of those without back pain.

Current use of illicit drugs (within the past 30 days) was much lower in both groups; 14% versus nine percent.

The study did not differentiate between recreational and medical marijuana use, nor did it draw a distinction between marijuana use in states where it is legal and where it is not. All marijuana use was considered "illicit."

All four illicit drugs in the survey were more commonly used by people with low back pain compared to those without back pain. Rates of lifetime use were 46.5% versus 42% for marijuana; 22% vs. 14% for cocaine; 9% vs. 5% for methamphetamine; and 5% vs. 2% for heroin.

Researchers said there was no evidence that illicit drug use causes lower back pain, only that there was an association between the two that bears watching when opioids are prescribed.

“The association between a history of illicit drug use and prescription opioid use in the cLBP (chronic lower back pain) population is consistent with previous studies, but may be confounded by other clinical conditions,” said lead author Anna Shmagel, MD, Division of Rheumatic and Autoimmune Diseases at the University of Minnesota.

“Mental health disorders, for example, have been associated with both illicit substance use and prescription opioid use in the chronic low back pain population. In the context of management, however, illicit drug abuse is predictive of aberrant prescription opioid behaviors. As we face a prescription opioid addiction epidemic, careful assessment of illicit drug use history may aid prescribing decisions.”

In a recent analysis of prescriptions filled for 12 million of its members, pharmacy benefit manager Prime Therapeutics found that nearly a quarter of the opioid prescriptions were written to treat low back pain.

"Our analysis found low back pain was the most common diagnosis among all members taking an opioid, even though medical guidelines suggest the risks are likely greater than the benefits for these individuals," said Catherine Starner, PharmD, lead health researcher for Prime Therapeutics.

In a 2014 position paper, the American Academy of Neurology said opioids provide “significant short term pain relief” for low back pain, but there was “no substantial evidence” that long term use outweighs the risk of addiction and overdose.