Many Americans get steroid shots for back pain, but a new study finds that the relief is only temporary.
Back pain is one of the most common reasons people go to the doctor. Between 800,000 and several million steroid injections are given every year to people with pain from herniated discs or spinal narrowing, experts say.
But researchers led by Roger Chou, a professor of medicine at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, found the steroid shots have no long-term benefit.
It’s important for people to consult with their primary care doctors before they talk to pain doctors because clinicians giving the injections “may not be in the most unbiased place,” Chou said.
“Yes, you might get a few weeks of some relief, but as for the longterm benefits, we don’t see that in the studies,” he said. “It’s unlikely to decrease your likelihood for surgery.”
Consumers, he said, “have the perception that these injections are more effective than they are.”
In a review published this week in Annals of Internal Medicine, the researchers analyzed data from 30 studies of steroid injections for radiculopathy (back pain that radiates to the legs, often caused by a herniated disc pinching on the nerve) and eight studies of spinal stenosis (narrowing of the space in the spinal canal that houses the nerves).
Researchers found “small benefits” when steroid shots were given for back pain caused by herniated discs, often referred to as sciatica, and the more common reason for back pain. But those benefits didn’t last long, Chou said.
For spinal stenosis, “ we were unable to find any benefits for that condition,” he said.
Researchers tried to figure out whether different techniques for administering the shots, the type of steroids, or dosage, made a difference in pain relief.
“As far as we could tell, there were no clear differences in either benefit or harm,” he said.
Researchers did not find serious complications in their review because the number of participants in the trials was not large enough, he said.
In 2012, a deadly meningitis outbreak was linked to contaminated steroid shots made by a Massachusetts pharmacy that killed at least 45 people and sickened more than 600 others.