What is the controversial stem cell treatment Tarek El Moussa got to heal his back pain?

Elise Solé
Tarek El Moussa underwent a controversial stem cell surgery to treat a back injury. (Photo: Getty Images)

Flip or Flop host Tarek El Moussa has undergone a controversial stem cell procedure using liposuction to fix a “very scary back injury.”

The HGTV host and real estate investor recently broke the news on Instagram — along with pretty graphic photos — writing, “Well folks!!!!! As you know I’m desperate to fix my back so…..I did STEM CELL surgery today!! It’s CRAZY!!!”

The father of two added: “They lipo my fat out with a 12-inch needle (I asked to take all my fat, they said no) than they spin it and separate the stem cells into a liquid. They then take the liquid and inject it through an IV. Somehow…the stem cells find the injured areas of your body and begin the process of healing it at a super fast rate. I believe they put over 1,000,000 stem cells back in my body after the lipo. It’s wild seeing the technology and future of medicine….has ANYONE had stem cell injections? Is anyone familiar with it?”


On Sunday, El Moussa also Instagrammed revealing photos of his back postsurgery, writing: “The aftermath is….well not so bad?. Here it is I’m a “little sore” but wow…my back is actually feeling better!!! I’m so hopeful that in a few weeks I will have a major improvement…I’ve always been told “pain is weakness leaving the body”..at this point I think I’m out of weakness….what do you think folks…not so bad??”


Five years after battling testicular cancer and thyroid cancer, El Moussa injured his back and underwent two surgeries, the second of which occurred in May. “Awful news…life has been going so well and I’ve been so happy and healthy!” El Moussa wrote on Instagram earlier this month. “Unfortunately….I injured my back again….it’s very scary. Last time I lost 50 pounds and was taking large amounts of pain meds to try and help the pain. Truthfully those meds really affected my mental and physical state and changed who I was. Last time I hurt my back it took me a year and a half to recover. As of today, I can barely walk…I honestly can’t even believe this is happening, I feel like it’s a bad dream that I will wake up from. I will be truthful and say I’m very down because of this. It is going to take a lot of positivity and strength to go through this a second time. I will stay positive and I will fight to get healthy again. I appreciate all the support.”

Stem cells are a group of cells with the power to morph into various specialized cells that, according to the National Institutes of Health, “serve as a sort of internal repair system” replenishing other cells that serve vital organs.

Stem cells are typically extracted from bone marrow or neural or fetal tissue to treat a variety of medical conditions, and the latter method, which often uses cells from abortions, has sparked a debate between antiabortion and pro-abortion-rights camps. 

However, using stem cells from fat to treat pain is novel. “Fat is an excellent place to source stem cells,” Brent Concolino, president of the Rock Institute in Newport Beach, Calif., which performed the surgery on El Moussa, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The cells from fat are healthy, plentiful, highly anti-inflammatory, and nearly painless to extract. Specifically, we extract stromal vascular fraction (SVF) from the tissue surrounding fat, which contains four types of stem cells.”

Marc Hedrick, MD, a pediatric plastic surgeon at the University of California, Los Angeles, also told ABC News in April, “Fat is not the tissue we once thought. For too long it was seen as something to be removed and tossed away. We weren’t seeing its potential. We now know that it’s not just spare tissue but rather a vigorous tissue capable of regenerating.”

In patients like El Moussa who have degenerative back conditions, SVF is being studied to reduce spasms and inflammation, and accelerate healing, says Concolino. 

The process, which takes from two and three hours, is similar to liposuction except patients are put under local anesthesia and doctors remove less than two ounces of fat to obtain the SVF. However, the price tag is comparable — the procedure can range between $6,000 and $10,000. “We store the patient’s fat, usually from his abdomen, with a special sterile harvesting technology and the fast extraction itself takes about 20 minutes,” says Concolino. After the stem cells are deposited back into the patient, they start repairing tissue and forming new blood vessels on cartilage and bone. 

But the procedure is open to debate. “The FDA has recently issued language that would classify SVF from the fat in your own body as a drug and physicians are now fighting to be able to continue using it on patients as a surgical procedure,” says Concolino. “However, SVF would never come in a bottle like a pharmaceutical since it has to be made fresh on location in the operating room from a person’s body and used immediately.” 

Concolino says there’s little post-op discomfort or restriction on activity. Considering El Moussa spent Mother’s Day on a boat with his family, he seems to be doing just fine. 


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