If you’ve ever had chronic pain strike a joint such as your knee, your hip or your shoulder, you know it can be difficult to do even the simplest of tasks.  If it’s your shoulder, a shot or a scalpel are your only options for relief. Yet, researchers in Sioux Falls are working to help stop the pain without surgery.

An Arizona man has made the trip all the way to Sioux Falls with the hopes of taking part in a new stem cell clinical trial that could get rid of his pain once and for all.

“Look at it this way, it can’t hurt and it might help.  And in the process they might learn something that will help other people,” Alan Liebowitz said.

After suffering a skiing injury back in 2011, Liebowitz says he lives in constant pain.

“I was hamming it up for the camera and I lost an edge. When I landed, I landed on my arm fully extended and there was instant pain in my wrist, my elbow and my shoulder,” Liebowitz said.

After visiting with a doctor, Liebowitz learned he had a tear in his rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint. Unfortunately, there aren’t many options besides a cortisone shot, which only temporarily alleviates pain, or surgery. 

“I’d have my arm in a sling for six to eight weeks. Recovery can take up to a year.  The older you get the harder it is and I am 72 so anything to avoid surgery,” Liebowitz, said.

Recently Sanford was FDA approved to run a clinical safety trial on how stem cells taken from a patient’s own fat could help the rotator cuff heal itself. 

“There is very little clinical research on stem cells right now.  The first thing that we have to do is show that it is safe,” Sanford orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jason Hurd said.

Hurd says the clinical trial will include 18 patients. 12 will receive stem cells in a process the takes fat from their abdomen and place it into the rotator cuff. Six will receive the placebo, which will just be a cortisone shot.

“There’s a lot of excitement around it. We just have to do the leg work now to see if this is going to work.  Is this going to be able to be used in clinical practice?  So yes it’s very exciting,” Hurd said.

Hurd says rotator cuff injuries would benefit greatly from stem cells if they work because they never heal on their own and usually get worse over time.

“If you have more than 50 percent of a partial thickness tear, there’s a 55 percent chance that that will progress into a full thickness tear,” Hurd said.

The double-blind study means neither the doctor nor the patient will know who is actually getting the stem cells. For Liebowitz, it’s worth the risk.

“I’ll come back 3, 6, 9 and 12 weeks after that. Six months after I start and a year after that and we’ll see if any progress is made,” Liebowitz said

Hurd says rotator cuff injuries are very common especially for people 40 and older. He says by age 70, more than 50 percent of the population will suffer from a rotator cuff tear.