Are Steroid Injections Helpful for Back Pain?

The use of steroid injections to treat back pain is a popular option for treating back pain for many patients. It’s minimally invasive and relatively inexpensive, and for many people these injections can provide effective management of a chronic pain issue. However, as reported in the Washington Post, some doctors are unsure about the long-term efficacy of using injections to treat pain. But steroid injections continue to be widely used, and many patients report feeling some degree of relief as a result of spinal steroid injection. What accounts for this discrepancy?

First of all, it’s important to understand how spinal injections are meant to work. Steroid injections are most frequently used to treat sciatica and leg pain that results from sciatic nerve pain, and they tend to be most effective when used to treat pain resulting from herniated discs. The steroid injection is delivered directly into the epidural space of the spine. The injected fluids may include cortisone, an anesthetic, and/or saline. The particular combination of injected solutions depends on the nature the problem.

It is generally well understood that pain relief that results from spinal injection therapies is temporary. There are, however, rare cases where these injections do provide enough relief to allow a patient to forego any further pain management therapies—and these exceptions to the rule can be blow out of proportion to their actual occurrence. This means that patients who may have exaggerated beliefs about the level of relief that steroid injections can provide are more likely to report a low level of efficacy.

Spinal injections are most often used to help a patient manage pain before moving on to the option of surgery. Even minimally invasive spine surgery, which has a smaller incision and faster recovery period, is still only used after other options for treating pain have been exhausted. In a situation where it looks like a person is likely to need a surgical procedure, a doctor may choose spinal injection therapy as a method to help the patient deal with the pain while they are waiting for surgery. In some cases, this therapy will provide enough relief that the patient won’t end up needing surgery, but in most cases it works as more of a placeholder. Rather than dealing with the actual cause of the pain — whether it’s sciatica or an injured disc — spinal injections only help patients manage the pain itself.

In the article in the Washington Post, doctors noted that even with different methods of injection and different combinations of solutions did necessarily produce differing results in patients. However, their study did show that spinal injection therapies tend to be most effective when used to treat pain that results from a herniated disc. One reason for this could be because especially in someone who is relatively young, a herniated disc may heal on its own.

Though studies like those reported by the Washington Post may give some readers concern about the efficacy of spinal injection, it’s important to understand how these may (or may not) fit into your individual treatment plan and to know what kind of results you can expect. If you are curious about these injections, or if you are looking for a second opinion, it’s a good idea to consult a physician who specializes in back health like Dr. Solomon Kamson.