Paula J., 57, a fitness instructor in Pittsburgh who specializes in plyometrics (jump training), boot camp and Zumba, sustained a painful knee injury while teaching a class six years ago. When she sought the advice of a physician soon afterward, he told her that he could help manage the pain a bit, but she would need knee replacement surgery in about 10 years.
“It hurt a lot,” said Paula, who has worked as a fitness instructor since 1986. “It got to the point where I was getting ready to stop teaching.”
Then, a little more than a year ago, she happened to see a report on a local news program about Regenexx, a procedure that uses a patient’s own stem cells to heal bone surfaces, ligaments, tendons and tissues, and offered exclusively in Pittsburgh by Dr. Paul Lieber and Dr. Marc Adelsheimer at Rehabilitation and Pain Specialists, a pain management clinic the two physicians founded in 2004.
“I called them the next day,” Paula, whose last name is being withheld to protect her privacy, said. “I jumped in and said, ‘Let’s go.’ And I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Regenexx is a non-surgical option to aid degenerative conditions, joint injuries and non-healing fractures that requires little or no recovery time, according to Lieber, who said he has spent much of his career in pain management seeking methods that will resolve pain permanently for his patients. About two years ago, he began working with stem cells through Regenexx, a company that has 23 affiliates around the United States and one in Australia.
The procedure places a concentrated amount of stem cells extracted from the patient’s own bone marrow into the injured area, assisting the body to heal naturally. It is a same-day procedure, where the patient’s cells are harvested in the morning, isolated and processed, then re-injected into the patient’s injured area within a period of a few hours.
Paula now has “zero pain,” she said, and continues to teach the high-level fitness classes that she loves five days a week.
“It’s amazing,” Paula said of Regenexx. “It gave me my life back. I was in so much pain, I didn’t want to even go shopping. Walking across a store was too much for me.”
Within three months following the procedure, Paula was back teaching her fitness classes.
“I’m at the point now where I sometimes forget I had it done,” she said. “I’m very grateful for it.”
Since 2012, Lieber and Adelsheimer have treated more than 175 patients through this method, and the results, Lieber said, are impressive: Most of their patients are now “markedly pain reduced,” while 10 to 20 percent are without any pain at all. With Regenexx, Lieber said, a patient has a two-thirds chance of getting 50 percent better within six months and will continue to improve in the following six months. The procedure is effective not only on knees, but on hips and shoulders as well.
For many people, Regenexx is a superior option than surgery, Lieber said.
“There are a number of people who have joint replacements who are not pain-free,” Lieber said. “For some, the pain never goes away. The good thing about what we do is, if you want to get back to an activity, you are more likely to with a [stem cell] injection rather than joint replacement.”
Lieber has seen no adverse reactions to the stem cell injections, he said, and the procedure has been effective on patients of all ages, regardless of their weight and regardless of how much arthritis they have.
“I have been in practice for 25 years, and this is by far and away the best treatment we have,” Lieber said. “We are re-building people. It’s sort of bionic.”
Sixty to 80 percent of people undergoing the procedure experience “quick relief,” Lieber said, with “pain going down to a one or a two.”
Regenexx is not covered by insurance, so a patient is responsible for the full cost, which averages about $5,500 for a knee injection, Lieber said. But, he noted, out-of-pocket costs for replacement surgery could end up being just as expensive, after taking into account deductibles and co-pays.
Not all patients are good candidates for Regenexx, Lieber said. The procedure is not recommended for people who cannot bend across a joint; if one cannot bend his knee or lift his arm above his shoulder or has significant hip immobility, Regenexx might provide partial relief but not long-term improvement. Also, people on steroids would not be candidates for the procedure, nor would cancer patients, he said.
“It’s really the only viable alternative to joint replacement outcomes,” said Adelsheimer. “The outcomes have exceeded our expectations.”
Patients have gone on to achieve marked improvements in the functionality, he said, including walking without discomfort. Runners have gone on to run marathons. And those who enjoy hiking, golf and skiing are able to return to those activities soon after undergoing the procedure.
“That’s the most important thing,” Adelsheimer said. “This allows them to return to those activities without having to go through major surgery.”
The stem cell injections do not work on everyone, Adelsheimer cautioned. But, he said, if it does not work, surgery remains an option. After performing this procedure on over 175 patients, Lieber and Adelsheimer have had only one patient each who went on to have replacement surgery afterward, Lieber said.
“It’s a good alternative to consider before you have that done,” he said.
Lieber and Adelsheimer will be presenting a seminar on Regenexx on March 16 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Rodef Shalom Congregation.
RAPS has offices in Fox Chapel, Sewickley and Monroeville.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.