The Risks and Side Effects of Donating Bone Marrow

If you are considering donating bone marrow for a loved one or as a kindness to someone who is unrelated and coping with cancer or another condition in need of your stem cells, this is an important question to be asking. As with any medical procedure, donating these cells does have some risks, though in general it is considered a very safe process.

Model of the pelvis
Miikam / iStockPhoto

If instead of donating bone marrow you plan to donate peripheral blood stem cells (a donation done through a blood draw rather than a bone marrow biopsy procedure), check out these possible risks of donating stem cells for transplant.

Collection Methods

To understand the potential risks of donating bone marrow, it's helpful to talk briefly about the bone marrow collection process. Bone marrow is taken (doctors call it "harvested") through a needle which is inserted into your hip. (Your bone marrow is on the inside of large bones in your body such as your hip.)

This is usually done under a general anesthetic in the operating room using sterile technique. During the procedure, approximately 2 liters of bone marrow is withdrawn. This may seem like a large amount, but it represents less than 10% of your bone marrow. It may help to know that your body makes over 20 billion blood cells in your bone marrow every day. The number of cells in your bone marrow is usually completely back to normal levels within 4 to 6 weeks, though your body can function perfectly fine in the meantime.

The Potential Risks 

Risks related to donating bone marrow are mostly related to the risk of the surgical procedure. Anytime you have surgery, there are the risks of general anesthesia as well as the risk of bleeding and infection. There is also the risk that the procedure could cause injury to nerves and blood vessels near the site of the marrow withdrawal and damage to the bone.

Mild Side Effects/Risks

After donating bone marrow you may be sore in the region of your hip for a week or slightly more. Among those who donated bone marrow as part of the National Marrow Donor Program, the majority of people experienced some back and hip pain for a few days, as well as fatigue. Side effects of anesthesia may also include a sore throat and nausea.

The procedure may be done as an outpatient, or you may spend a few days in the hospital. Some medical centers recommend taking 7 to 10 days off of work following the procedure, but some people feel up to returning to work much sooner. The median time (that is, the time after which 50% of people had and 50% hadn't) to get completely back to "normal" was 20 days.

Severe Side Effects/Risks

According to the National Marrow Donor Program, 2.4% of people who donate bone marrow experience a serious complication. Very few bone marrow donors suffer any long-term complications from their donation.

Around the world, researchers looked at over 27,000 people who had donated bone marrow in 35 countries. Of these people, there was one death and 12 serious events (mostly heart related) that were felt to be related to bone marrow donation.

Can You Meet the Recipient?

If you are donating for an anonymous recipient, you may be wondering if you will have the chance to meet the person whose life you may have saved. Most agencies have fairly strict regulations about patient-donor contact, but you may wish to check out heartwarming stories of patients and donors meeting.

The Benefits

When considering any issue, it's important to weigh the risks against the benefits. The risks of bone marrow donation are small, but the benefits to those who may receive your donation can be priceless. That said, donating bone marrow is not for everyone, and it's important that you honor yourself in whatever choice you make. Only you can make the decision that is right for you.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Indranil Mallick, MD
 Indranil Mallick, MD, DNB, is a radiation oncologist with a special interest in lymphoma.