Whether as a result of injury, poor habits, or wear-and-tear, pain in the neck can be more than just a saying: it can be real and debilitating.
According to the Mayo Clinic, neck pain is the fourth leading cause of disability in the United States. Most episodes of acute neck pain will resolve with or without treatment, but nearly half of those who report pain in their necks will suffer from frequent recurrences of it.[i]
The good news for those patients, however, is that science and technology are working together to help physicians clearly pinpoint the exact source of neck pain and offer new options for long-lasting relief.
Identifying the Source of the Pain
Advancements in imaging technologies are allowing physicians to get a better look at the intricacies of the spine like never before. This enables them to see the exact spots in the cervical spine—the seven vertebrae at the top of the spine that support the neck area—that may be the cause of chronic, unresolved neck pain. These include:
- Cartilage Degeneration: Like all joints in the body, the vertebrae in the neck are separated by cushioning cartilage. When this cartilage begins to break down, bone spurs can develop that can make the movements of the neck painful.
- Cervical Facet Joint Dysfunction: If the facet joints that are connected to the neck vertebrae become inflamed or injured, neck pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility may result.
- Herniated (bulging) Discs: Six intervertebral discs separate the cervical bones. They consist of a strong outer layer that protects the disc’s soft gel-like interior. If the outer layer weakens or tears, it may begin to protrude into the spinal canal and affect nearby nerves, causing pain.
Cellular Treatments that Help Resolve Pain Naturally
Most cases of neck pain can be resolved with physical therapy, lifestyle improvements (including ways to avoid cell phone-induced pain such as “text neck”), and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories.
But when the pain persists, pain medicine specialists can offer a number of options for long-lasting pain relief, including using substances that are naturally found in the body and have the ability to heal injured tissues. These cellular products are often referred to as orthobiologics and they are providing new options for treating stubborn neck pain.
- Platelet Rich Plasma treatments capitalize on blood platelets’ healing properties since they release growth factors and proteins that promote tissue repair, while plasma carries hormones, electrolytes, and nutrients required to nourish cells during the healing process. PRP treatments can help reduce inflammation in the cervical spine and help restore neck strength.
- Prolotherapy (Proliferative Therapy) injections deliver dextrose and other medications into the cervical spine to help jump-start the natural healing response. This can be used in conjunction with platelet-rich plasma to expedite healing.
- Stem Cells have the unique ability to develop into the specific kind of cell needed, whether that be a tendon, ligament, cartilage, or bone. They are taken from the patient’s own bone marrow or adipose (fat) tissue, concentrated to maximize their unique healing capabilities, and reinjected at the exact source of the neck pain using ultrasound or x-ray guidance. These treatments can reduce inflammation and help the body regenerate cartilage between the vertebrae in the cervical spine.
Regenerative medicine specialists have been using orthobiologics for decades with great success to treat other orthopedic conditions, including knee arthritis, back pain, tennis and golf elbow, rotator cuff tears and more.
A select few are now applying their experience to put these powerful sources of healing to work to address neck pain. To ensure maximum safety and efficacy, patients considering orthobiologic treatments for chronic neck pain should research clinics and practices to ensure they:
- Only use autologous (from the patient’s own body) products. Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not allow the use of stem cells derived from amniotic fluid or other fetal tissues to treat orthopedic conditions because these donor products have not been tested for safety or efficacy.
- Use highly specialized centrifuges that enable them to create customized treatments that provide the highest concentration of orthobiologics from the patient’s own body.
- Employ fluoroscopic (x-ray) or ultrasound guidance to ensure targeted delivery of the healing materials directly to the injured neck area.
- Have a demonstrated track record of success with other orthobiologic treatments, including published outcomes.
- Require board certified physicians in interventional pain medicine (not physician assistants or nurse practitioners) to perform the procedure.
Because orthobiologic treatments for neck pain are relatively new within the field of regenerative medicine, patients need to ask the right questions and should consider only those practitioners who have extensive experience in regenerative medicine, including contributions to ongoing research and participation in clinical trials.