Donating bone marrow is generally safe. It can cause side effects like fatigue, pain, and bruising. Rare complications include nerve or muscle damage and reactions to anesthesia.

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.

A 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. With this, you’ll be awake, but you won’t feel anything in the area of your body undergoing the procedure.

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

According to Be The Match, a national marrow donor program, this procedure under 2 hours. 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?

Bone marrow transplants can be a life-saving procedure for many, including those with hematologic cancers. These cancers affect the cells of the immune system or blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow. Hematologic cancers can include types of:

In 2019, it was estimated that around 553,368 people were living with hematologic cancers that had been diagnosed within the past 5 years.

For some of these individuals, a bone marrow transplant may be the only treatment option. Bone marrow transplants can also be used to help replace blood cells that are damaged during intensive cancer treatments.

In addition to cancer, bone marrow transplants may also help treat other conditions, including:

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

Anyone between 18 and 40 years old can register to be a donor.

According to Be The Match, doctors generally prefer donors to be between 18 and 35. This is because younger donors are associated with better outcomes and improved chances of long-term survival for those receiving the transplant.

Some conditions can prevent you from becoming a donor. These may include:

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

  • addiction
  • diabetes
  • hepatitis
  • mild allergies
  • a tick-borne illness and recovered
  • tuberculosis
  • very early cancer that didn’t require chemotherapy or radiation

You’ll need to provide a tissue sample. A professional may obtain a sample by swabbing the inside of your cheek. You must also sign a consent form.

When donating your bone marrow, you’re also 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 at 20 to 30 hours over 4 to 6 weeks, not including any travel time.

According to the American Cancer Society, few side effects may be associated with bone marrow donation and serious complications are rare.

Potential complications may include:

  • nerve or muscle damage
  • transfusion reactions
  • reactions to anesthesia
  • injury at needle insertion sites

Though general anesthesia is safe, it is also associated with risks and side effects. Some common side effects include:

  • vomiting
  • chills
  • confusion or memory problems
  • difficulty passing urine
  • sore throat
  • dizziness

In rare cases, it may also cause serious complications, such as accidental awareness, which occurs when someone is conscious during general anesthesia, or anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that can be fatal.

That being said, harvesting bone marrow doesn’t usually cause major problems.

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

Because you only donate a small amount of bone marrow, it won’t weaken your own immune system. Your body will replace it within 4 to 6 weeks, Be The Change notes.

Some potential side effects from general anesthesia include:

Regional anesthesia doesn’t usually have any significant side effects. But it may cause:

  • mild discomfort
  • bruising
  • headaches
  • dizziness

Some side effects of marrow donation include:

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

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

Read the stories of four people who became bone marrow donors — and saved lives in the process.

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 may need to stay overnight. This may depend on the hospital.

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 until the swelling goes down.
  • 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. However, others find it less painful than they expected.

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

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.

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, travel expenses, and other non-medical costs are covered by the National Marrow Donor Program or by the recipient’s medical insurance.

If you’re between 18 and 40

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

If you’re over 40

Currently, Be the Match doesn’t allow people who are over 40 to join the registry. This is because people receiving cells from younger donors typically have improved outcomes and a reduced risk of complications.

Age guidelines may differ for those donating bone marrow to a relative.

If bone marrow harvesting isn’t for you

You can donate stem cells through a process called peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation, which doesn’t require surgery. For 5 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 to your other arm. This procedure is called apheresis. It can take up to 8 hours.

The median time for full recovery after PBSC donation is 1 week.

Either way, by donating bone marrow or stem cells, your recipient and their family will potentially receive the gift of life.