I have early stage osteoarthritis (OA) in all of my joints. It is painful and debilitating, the bane of my existence. The only viable treatment for my condition is culture-expanded mesenchymal stem cells, harvested from my own bone marrow and injected directly into the joints. Unfortunately for me and millions of others with joint pain, the FDA has regulated this therapy out of existence in the US for the foreseeable future, so only way to get it is by paying tens of thousands of dollars in cash at clinic in an offshore haven where the U.S.-based proprietor has government approval.
With a $30,000 gift from my father, I received this treatment at the foreign clinic in Feb 2017. We treated about half of my joints, targeting the most painful ones. It was no “miracle cure,” and some joints did better than others, but it DID result in dramatic overall improvement. For reasons beyond the scope of this post, I’m certain it wasn’t a placebo effect. It gave me my life back. I could work and lift HIT-style (i.e. slow technique, low volume/frequency) without pain. I spend the next two years working tirelessly, putting in 70 hour weeks to save for a second treatment.
In Dec 2018, 22 months after my first treatment, I returned to the offshore clinic for my second round of injections. I paid about another $30K to do a massive treatment, hitting most of the untreated joints and re-treating some of the same ones we hit in 2017. I was stoked to get even more improvement.
10 weeks after receiving this second treatment, things were going well, and I was getting very noticeable improvements in most of the joints treated. I could feel a definite reduction in the degree of stiffness and crepitus in my joints, which is the telltale sign of cartilage regeneration.
On Feb 16, I was invited to an old friend’s birthday party, which included dinner and duckpin bowling. I was unsure whether I should participate in the latter, because I was concerned that it could place too much stress on some of the joints that I had just had treated, particularly my hand and wrist. Too much stress on the joints too soon can cause the newly formed cartilage in the joints to break down, resulting in treatment failure.
I remember sitting in the restaurant and internally debating whether to bowl. I was clearly aware that doing so was a risk, but did not want to excuse myself from the group. So from the restaurant, I accompanied the group to the bowling alley. I decided to give it a try, and base my decision to partake on how it felt; if it caused obvious pain or strain, I would quit. The clinic’s recovery guidelines say to let pain be your guide to activity—if it causes pain of more than two on a scale of 10, don’t do it.
At the bowling alley, I held the 3.5 lb. ball in my hand, and it felt easy, like it had no weight at all. I bowled a few frames and felt absolutely fine. So I decided to continue, believing the activity to be safe. I bowled two games, totaling 60 throws of the ball. I did not feel any pain at the time, so assumed I was fine.
But two days later, while at work, I noticed my hands and wrists felt “off”—the joints had suddenly stiffened up and become much harder to move across the keyboard than they had been a few days before. Overnight, the improvement in the condition of the joints resulting from the treatment had been lost, and they were now in worse shape than before. As the day went on, I had a nasty whole-body flare, the likes of which I hadn’t had in years.
Over the next few days, I noticed signs of massive, body-wide joint damage, directly proportional in severity to the degree a given joint was used in bowling. I had severely miscalculated the risk; it had been WAY over the line, each throw of the ball causing joint damage too subtle to detect at the time, but adding up in a big way that was not immediately apparent.
The bowling incident completely botched my second stem cell procedure and caused fresh, raw damage to many of the joints involved. Thankfully, and serving as further evidence of how well the treatment works, the joints treated in 2017 held up better, I guess because the repair tissue in those joints had more time to mature before I fucked them up again. I am now back to being in deplorable condition overall. I’m in significant pain every day.
I am going to save for another another stem cell procedure. The total price tag to treat all the joints I want will be $65,000. I have about $50K of that, and it’s going to be fucking hard to save the rest as a change in circumstances has reduced my savings rate.
Because I went bowling. Because I was not assertive enough to excuse myself from a social situation when I knew there was a risk. Because I was irresponsible.
Thanks for reading.