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Stem Cells Offer New Hope For Recovery From Rotator Cuff Surgery

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Stem cells have shown promise for all sorts of medical issues for years.

As CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez reports, you can now add shoulder surgery to that list. It's for the more than 3 million Americans who experience rotator cuff injuries each year.

Current surgical options are overwhelmingly successful but can be extremely painful and take as long as one year to fully recover.

Seamus Mullen is a celebrity chef with two Spanish restaurants in Manhattan. He depends on his arms and hands for his livelihood, so you can only imagine what he felt when a bike accident tore both of his rotator cuffs.

"I realized that shoulders were really a major issue," he said. "Couldn't lift my arms, had excruciating pain, couldn't lift my bike."

Almost as scary is how his friends, who had been through rotator cuff surgery, described the recovery process.

"Worst thing you've ever been through," he recalled them saying. "For six months you won't be able to use your arms, in excruciating pain."

Thankfully for Seamus, he was back in the gym just two months after having both shoulders operated on -- something most people can't do for nearly a year post-op. His surgeon credits stem cells for the remarkable recovery.

"They have the ability to become the tendon cells, so either they're becoming tendon cells or producing proteins that recruit other cells that help heal it," Dr. Aruna Seneviratne from Mount Sinai West said.

First, Dr. Seneviratne extracts bone marrow from Seamus's pelvis, spins it down to concentrate the stem cells, and then goes about reattaching the torn rotator cuff tendon to the bone.

Tendon doesn't have a lot of blood supply, so it takes a long time to heal securely enough to withstand the forces placed on the shoulder joint. That's where adding stem cells jump starts the process.

"At six months there's 100 percent healing and at ten years there's almost zero re-tears," Dr. Seneviratne said.

The stem cells more than did the trick for Seamus. Just as exciting, the approach has been shown to help other injuries such as tennis elbow, Achilles tendon tears, even knee arthritis. The bad news is that it adds four to seven thousand dollars to the cost of surgery which isn't covered by insurance.

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