For many with chronic back pain, epidural injections are the only reliable source of relief. However, a recently published study suggests that consistent administrations of steroid could result in more harm than good. In the following article, Dr. Michael Omidi discusses the study, as well as the possible complications that could arise from the steroid treatments.
The recent fungal meningitis outbreak was caused by a tainted batch of injectable steroids (methylprednisolone acetate) meant for the treatment of chronic back pain. Now, according to a new study, it seems that the back problems that the steroid was meant to relieve might actually be made worse by the epidural injections .
In a study that was recently published in the journal Spine, a group of physicians followed 276 patients from the ages of 53-75 with more or less similar degrees of chronic back pain for four years. Of the 276 subjects, 69 received epidural steroid injections as a part of pain management therapy, while the remaining 207 did not. The authors of the study expected to see a wider variation of painful symptoms in the subjects who had not had epidural injections versus those who did. Instead, it seems that the subjects that underwent epidural injections displayed considerably less improvement after corrective surgical procedures than those who did not.
The study was too small to draw any concrete conclusions, but it does seem that the steroid injections might hamper the healing process post surgery.
The subjects were all suffering from spinal stenosis, a condition wherein the open spaces within the spine gradually narrow, putting pressure on the spinal cord and causing sometimes extreme pain. The steroid injections ease the pain temporarily by surrounding the conflicted nerves.
Because spinal stenosis is a degenerative condition, the addition of the steroids may facilitate that degeneration, making the prognosis after surgery more grave than if the treatment was never administered.
Epidural injections are only recommended for patients who suffer from crippling back pain that may also spread to the arms, legs and head. These injections are not meant to cure the condition; only to make the symptoms more bearable. However, it is estimated that only approximately half of all the patients who receive epidural injections for treatment of back pain derive significant pain relief.
It should be noted that steroid injections should be viewed as a last resort in the event that other physical therapies and medications prove ineffective.
 Bakalar, Nicholas: Back Pain Unrelieved By Steroid Shots New York Times 3/5/2013 http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/05/back-pain-unrelieved-by-steroid-shots/?ref=health