Overview

A bone marrow transplant is a type of stem cell transplant in which the stem cells are collected (harvested) from bone marrow. After being removed from the donor, they’re transplanted into the recipient.

The procedure takes place in a hospital or outpatient facility.

Your doctor can use general anesthesia, so you’ll be asleep during the surgery and won’t feel any pain. Alternatively, they can use regional anesthesia. You’ll be awake, but you won’t feel anything.

The surgeon will then insert needles into the hip bone to draw the marrow out. The incisions are tiny. You won’t need stitches.

This procedure takes an hour or two. Your marrow will then be processed for the recipient. It can be preserved and frozen for later use. Most donors can go home the same day.

What’s the benefit of bone marrow donation?

Each year in the United States, more than 10,000 people learn they have an illness such as leukemia or lymphoma, estimates the Mayo Clinic. For some, a bone marrow transplant may be their only treatment option.

Your donation could save a life — and that’s a great feeling.

Requirements to be a donor

Not sure you’re eligible to donate? Not to worry. A screening process will help ensure that you’re healthy enough and that the procedure will be safe for you and the recipient.

Anyone between 18 and 60 years old can register to be a donor.

People between 18 and 44 tend to produce more and higher quality cells than older individuals. Doctors choose donors in the 18 to 44 age group more than 95 percent of the time, according to Be The Match, a national marrow donor program.

There are some conditions that prevent you from becoming a donor. These include:

With other conditions, your eligibility is decided on a case-by-case basis. You may be able to donate if you’ve had:

You’ll need to provide a tissue sample. This is obtained by swabbing the inside of your cheek. You must also sign a consent form.

Besides donating your bone marrow, you’re donating your time. To be accepted, you’ll need to provide additional blood tests and have a physical examination. The total time commitment for the donation process is estimated to be 20 to 30 hours over four to six weeks, not including any travel time.

What are the risks to the donor?

The most serious risks have to do with anesthesia. General anesthesia is usually safe, and most people come through without problems. But some people have a bad reaction to it, particularly when there’s a serious underlying condition or the procedure is extensive. People who fall into those categories may have an increased risk for:

  • postoperative confusion
  • pneumonia
  • stroke
  • heart attack

Harvesting of the bone marrow doesn’t normally cause major problems.

About 2.4 percent of donors have a serious complication from anesthesia or damage to bone, nerve, or muscle, according to Be The Match.

You’ll only lose a small amount of bone marrow, so it won’t weaken your own immune system. Your body will replace it within six weeks.

What are the potential side effects?

Some potential side effects from general anesthesia are:

  • sore throat due to the breathing tube
  • mild nausea
  • vomiting

Regional anesthesia can cause headache and a temporary drop in blood pressure.

Some side effects of marrow donation include:

  • bruising at the incision site
  • soreness and stiffness where the marrow was harvested
  • achiness or pain in the hip or back
  • trouble walking for a few days due to pain or stiffness

You might also feel fatigued for a few weeks. That should resolve as your body replaces the marrow.

In our own words: Why we donated

Recovery timeline

Right after the surgery, you’ll be moved to a recovery room. You’ll be monitored for several hours.

Most donors can go home the same day, but some need to stay overnight.

Recovery time varies from person to person. You might be able to resume your usual activities within a few days. It could also take up to a month to feel like your old self. Be sure to follow your hospital discharge instructions.

While recovering, here are a few ways to ease common side effects:

  • Lightheadedness. Rise from a lying down or seated position slowly. Take things easy for a while.
  • Sleep disturbances. Eat smaller, lighter meals. Rest and go to bed earlier until you feel fully recovered.
  • Swelling at the surgery site. Avoid heavy lifting and strenuous activity for 7 to 10 days.
  • Swelling of the lower back. Use an ice pack periodically throughout the day.
  • Stiffness. Stretch or take a few short walks each day until you build up your strength and flexibility.
  • Fatigue. Rest assured that it’s temporary. Get plenty of rest until you feel like yourself again.

According to Be The Match, some donors find it more painful than they thought it would be. But others find it less painful than they expected.

Your doctor might prescribe a pain reliever when you leave the hospital. You can also try over-the-counter medication. Aches and pains shouldn’t last more than a few weeks. If they do, contact your doctor.

How many times can you donate bone marrow?

In theory, you can donate many times since your body can replace lost bone marrow. But just because you register as a donor doesn’t mean you’ll get matched with a recipient.

Finding multiple potential matches is rare. The odds of one unrelated match are between 1 in 100 and 1 in a million, according to the Asian American Donor Program.

The takeaway

Since it’s so hard to match donors and recipients, the more people who register, the better. It’s a commitment, but you can change your mind even after you’ve registered.

Do you want to save a life by donating bone marrow? Here’s how:

Visit BeTheMatch.org, the largest marrow registry in the world. You can set up an account, which includes a brief history of your health and contact information. It should take about 10 minutes.

Alternatively, you can call them at 800-MARROW2 (800-627-7692). The organization can provide details about the donation process and let you know what to do next.

The cost of the medical procedures is typically the responsibility of the donor or their medical insurance.

If you’re between 18 and 44

There’s no fee to join. You can register online or at a local community event.

If you’re between 45 and 60

You can only register online. You’ll be asked to cover the $100 registration fee.

If bone marrow harvesting isn’t for you

You can donate stem cells through a process called peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation. It doesn’t require surgery. For five days before your donation, you’ll receive injections of filgrastim. This drug increases blood stem cells in the bloodstream.

On the day of the donation, you’ll give blood through a needle in your arm. A machine will collect the blood stem cells and return the remaining blood into your other arm. This procedure is called apheresis. It can take up to eight hours.

Either way, your recipient and their family will potentially receive the gift of life.