“Why would anyone jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” This question is quite common for non-airborne personnel to ask U.S. Army paratroopers. The answers vary, of course, but one reason that never seems to come up is the amount of back, neck, spine, head and leg injuries that jumping out of a perfectly good airplane can cause as a result of one bad jump or over the course of a 30-year career.
For the more than 20 million vets who rely on the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (The VA) for their healthcare, the wounds of war can run deep. But so can the variety of medical conditions that are unique too – or have a higher incidence of occurring in – former and retired military personnel than the general populace.
Believe it or not, military medicine often is at the forefront of new and innovative medical techniques and procedures. For example, it was the military that pioneered the use of prosthetics, plastic surgeries and blood transfusions from field expedient to state-of-the-art. The continues to study the use of cutting-edge medical services, in particular, they have been investigating the efficacy of regenerative medicines such as stem cell therapies, for more than a decade to provide healing to veterans in their care. So where does the VA stand on using stem cell therapies for healing our wounded warriors? Can stem cell therapy be used for veterans?
Frequent health problems common to vets
Although certain medical conditions that affect veterans are conflict-specific – such as Vietnam-era vets suffering from the effects of the herbicide Agent Orange or Desert Storm vets with neuropathies – there are several health problems that are common to veterans of all eras. Post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, prostate, and other cancers, as well as musculoskeletal injuries and respiratory conditions, are often more prevalent in the veteran community than for those who might not have served.
Over half of healthcare visits by veterans are related to musculoskeletal injuries, particularly, chronic pain of the knee, back, shoulder and neck. In addition, veterans’ musculoskeletal injuries limit function at higher rates than the general population. Back and neck problems are at the top of the list and veterans are almost three times more likely to have a back or neck problem as compared to non-veterans. Regenerative therapies, such as stem cell therapies, can be a key treatment for vets to address musculoskeletal, as well as other, medical conditions.
Veterans and regenerative therapies
A collaboration between several researchers and healthcare and educational institutions, known as the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM), specifically focuses on the use of regenerative medicine, including stem cells therapies, to treat and heal those who stood in harm’s way to defend our freedoms.
For five years, this federally funded program has conducted ten clinical studies related to veterans and regenerative therapies. Their research has included this treatment for combat burns and various type of reconstructive surgeries, among others.
Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, leads the AFIRM researchers and says “Our researchers are driven by the needs of wounded warriors for new and better treatments.”
Dr. Atala states that AFIRM’s ongoing work and future studies focus on specific types of care such as restoring function to severely traumatized limbs and aiding in the replacement of bone, muscle, nerve, and cartilage for reconstructive surgeries. Dr. Atala adds, “It’s important to note that most of the treatments developed through this program will also benefit the civilian population.”
So are vets covered?
The answer depends on the veterans’ condition and if he qualifies for stem cell treatment. Depending on the veteran’s diagnosis and condition, or example, the treatment of hematologic malignancies, stem cell therapies may be called upon as part of the overall treatment. Veterans must first qualify and then have their case reviewed before treatment gets underway. It is important for veterans to work closely with their local and regional VA medical centers to see if they qualify and to apply for the treatment.
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