Alternatives to Epidural Steroid Injections for lumbar back pain

Ross Hauser, MD & Danielle Matias, PA-C

This article will discuss low back and lumbar epidural steroid injections. For cervical spine epidurals please see our article: Cervical epidural steroid injections in complicated neck pain cases.

Many people want to delay, avoid, or at best deeply prolong the need for spinal surgery. If you are reading this article it is likely you are one of these people. While you attempt to delay this surgery, you find yourself researching and exploring alternatives to surgery. Your doctor, maybe not convinced that you can avoid surgery, may be offering you a pain management program to help you until you decide to get the surgery. One option your doctor may be offering is the use of epidural steroid injections.

Article outline:

  • The realistic outlook of Epidural steroid injections.
  • The challenge is finding a suitable alternative for spinal surgery.
    • The second challenge is to find a suitable alternative to corticosteroid injections.
  • Epidurals may be bad for me, but I need options.
  • Understanding Epidurals are sometimes referred to as epidural nerve blocks or epidural blocks.
  • Are Epidurals meaningful medicine in reducing lumbosacral radicular syndrome?
    • Should the current daily practice of Epidural steroid injections for patients with lumbosacral radicular syndrome continue?
  • Understanding side-effects – Epidural steroid injections CAN NOT be repeated without concern regarding the duration of time between injections.
  • Epidural steroid injections bridge the gap between physical therapy and surgery. Is this a bridge to cross?
  • Epidural Steroid Injections Risks and Concerns.
    • Side Effect: Epidural steroid injection and bone loss.
    • Therapy with glucocorticoids often results in bone loss and glucocorticoid-induced osteoporosis.
    • The effect of repeat Epidural steroid injections.
    • A side effect seen in surgery is dural Tears.
  • Research on the effectiveness of epidural steroid injections.
  • “For lumbar spinal stenosis symptoms, epidural injections of corticosteroid plus lidocaine offered no benefits from 6 weeks to 12 months beyond that of injections of lidocaine alone.”
  • There is no significant consensus regarding epidural effectiveness.
  • But what about my leg pain? Research: “slightly reduced leg pain in the short-term.”
  • Epidural steroid injections can help. They do not help that much more than an epidural placebo injection.
  • Epidural steroid injections “do not repair damage and long-term clinical improvement is lacking.”
  • How about evidence that the epidurals are only masking pain and could be making your situation worse?
    • Research: Pain relief was not reflected in a significant immediate improvement in motor performance. Pain relief did not fix your structural problems.
  • “Unnecessary multiple epidural steroid injections delay surgery for massive lumbar disc herniation.”
  • Do you really need that surgery? If you have been prescribed epidural steroid injections and painkillers. The answer is yes, you will probably need that surgery.
    • “More than one out of every four patients undergoing epidural steroid injections for lumbar herniation or stenosis subsequently had surgery, and nearly one of six had surgery within the first year.”
  • I have failed back surgery and I needed to do something.
  • An Alternative to Epidural Steroid Injections is Prolotherapy for Back Pain.
    • Prolotherapy is the opposite of epidural steroid injections.

If you have had a discussion with your doctor about the use of Epidural steroid injections, remember what they likely said about the realities of this treatment:

  • Epidural steroid injections ease the pain temporarily by reducing the size of stressed nerve roots.
  • There are however concerns over short-term gain versus long-term costs in the use of epidural steroid injection because of the well-documented side effects.
  • Epidurals are part of the common treatments for light (not severe) cases of lumbar radiculopathy which usually include NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), physical therapy, or chiropractic treatment.
  • Although many patients respond very well to these treatments, they are only temporary fixes that can help ease the pain and only relieve some symptoms of the condition.

In this article, we are going to look at three types of patients:

1. The people who already had the epidural steroid injections(s) and have been told that the next step is surgery because the epidural injections have limited effect and you will need something else to help you.

2. You have tried the epidural steroid injections and it did not help as much as you thought it would but your doctor is confident the next injection will help. Still, you are exploring whether to try it again or find something else. OR,

3. You have been newly suggested to get the epidural steroid injection(s) and you were advised of the benefits and risks and you are looking up information on Epidural Steroid Injections. You still have hope that you will not need surgery and this may be your answer.

The challenge is finding a suitable alternative for spinal surgery. The second challenge is to find a suitable alternative to corticosteroid injections.

Typically we will get an email or a patient will tell us in the office that they were recommended to get an epidural, and, doing what most people do, they went right to the internet to look up what an epidural steroid injection is, what are the side-effects of an epidural steroid injection, and how much does it really help? It does not take long for someone to discover enough information about epidural steroid injections to want to explore an alternative. The challenge is finding a suitable alternative. Below are some of the types of emails we receive.

Epidurals and physical therapy

I have had four epidural injections over the last 36 months. I get great results initially, but after a few months, the pain returns. I am grateful however for the time I do get relief, even if the pain comes back. My doctor told me that epidural injections are not the long-term plan, and I need to find alternatives. One alternative was physical therapy. I went twice a week but started to have worsening pain. (Please see our article Why physical therapy and yoga did not help your low back pain.) Now I don’t know what to do, get surgery, or take a lot of pills.

Successful surgery turned into non-successful surgery, epidurals are not helping

I had a lumbar laminectomy at two levels. For over a year I had great results. Then I started having pain that went into my hips.  I was sent to physical therapy and given pain medications. Since these treatments did not help me the next step was the epidural injections. I had two of them. The pain has now moved down my leg and it is making it very difficult to walk. My doctors are debating whether this is a hip or a problem in my low back. 

I took the epidurals because the pain was so bad.

(From a doctor) I knew the research, I knew the side effects, and there was nothing else I could do, I took the epidurals because the pain was so bad.

Okay, epidurals may be bad for me, but I need options.

We have been helping people with chronic pain for over three decades. Pain is not a new phenomenon for us. We have seen people with varying degrees of pain and even patients who tell us on a scale of 1 – 10 their pain is a 12. We understand one of the hardest things to do is help people get off their pain medications or treatments that suppress pain. Do understand that some people have had great success with epidural steroid injections. Some people even had a few of them. These are the people we typically do not see in our office. We see the ones who had less than desired results or failure of the treatment. This is the group of patients this article is for.

Understanding Epidurals are sometimes referred to as epidural nerve blocks or epidural blocks.

A very brief description of the goal of this injection is pain relief through a reduction of inflammation and swelling in the epidural space. The epidural space is an area of the spine that surrounds the spinal nerves and the spinal cord. So injecting into this space allows for access to the spinal nerves and the ability to send a small amount of anesthetic (painkiller) to numb the nerves and block pain signals between the spine and brain.

The injection can be given as:

  • interlaminar epidural injections (which deliver the injection over a wider area of the back),
  • transforaminal epidural injections, (more targeted to a specific nerve – some call this an epidural nerve block or epidural block injection),
  • and caudal techniques (delivery into the extreme lumbar spine).

Numerous research studies have found it challenging to determine whether one technique is superior to the other, especially when considering multi-level disc-related pain.

Are Epidurals meaningful medicine in reducing lumbosacral radicular syndrome? Should the current daily practice of Epidural steroid injections for patients with lumbosacral radicular syndrome continue?

A July 2021 study in The Clinical Journal of Pain (1) comes from Dutch pain specialists in the Netherlands. In this paper, the doctors suggest that “Epidural steroid injections can be used to reduce lumbosacral radicular syndrome-related pain.” BUT, “the clinical relevance of Epidural steroid injections is currently unknown.” Their paper then was to assess whether Epidural steroid injections are clinically relevant for patients with the lumbosacral radicular syndrome.”

How? By assessing previous research findings and cumulating the results.

What did they find? “On the basis of the analyses the researchers concluded, “there is insufficient evidence that epidural steroid injections for patients with lumbosacral radicular syndrome are clinically relevant at any follow-up moment. High-quality studies utilizing a predefined clinical success are necessary to identify potential clinically relevant effects of ESIs. Until the results of these studies are available, there is no reason to consider whether the current daily practice of Epidural steroid injections for patients with lumbosacral radicular syndrome should continue.”

A March 2023 paper from doctors in the United Kingdom, published in the European Spine Journal (2) continued this line of research and suggested: “There is little, and low quality, evidence to guide practice in terms of factors that predict outcomes in patients following epidural steroid injections for disc-related sciatica.”

But why do patients still get epidurals?

A recent study from Johns Hopkins (3) suggested that 75% of patients they monitored who were treated with epidural steroids reported 50 percent or greater leg pain relief and felt better overall after one month compared to those who received saline (50 percent) or etanercept (acting as an anti-inflammatory 42 percent).

Patients still get epidurals because they provide pain relief and as noted below, relief from disability challenges.

  • Continuing with this cited study, on a pain scale of 0 to 10, with 10 denoting the worst pain, those who received steroids reported, at one month, an average pain score of 2.1 compared with 3.6 in the etanercept group and 3.8 in the group injected with saline.
  • Those in the steroid group also reported lower levels of disability (21 percent) than those in the saline group (29 percent) or etanercept group (38 percent).

Sounds good for the epidural against saline or anti-inflammatory. However, after six months, slightly more patients in the saline (40 percent) and etanercept (38 percent) groups had a positive outcome than those in the steroid group (29 percent).

This research was cited in a supportive study published by a research team in the International Journal of Clinical & Experimental Medicine(4). Here, a systematic literature search was conducted to examine studies comparing the effect of local anesthetic with or without steroids. This meta-analysis confirms that epidural injections of local anesthetic with or without steroids have beneficial but similar effects in the treatment of patients with chronic low back and lower extremity pain. In 2021 researchers at the University of Rome (5) acknowledging this study also suggested: “According to the literature analyzed in this narrative review, there is no consensus on the use of ESIs for patients with chronic lumbar pain. ESIs seem to be effective in relieving symptoms in the short term and delaying surgery, while evidence of any long-term benefits is still lacking.”

In research from Penn State (6) that we will cite again in this article, doctors found that patients with pain with lumbar extension (most commonly a popular exercise where patients “stretch” their spine by bending backward) were negatively and significantly related to the length of relief duration from the caudal epidural steroid injections. The average length of relief duration is 38.37 weeks for individuals without painful lumbar extension and 14.68 weeks for individuals with painful lumbar extension. The mean length of relief following a caudal injection is reduced by 62% in patients who exhibit pain with lumbar extension.

This research supported a 2011 work in the British Medical Journal (7) that looked at the effectiveness of caudal epidural steroid or saline injections which are often used for chronic lumbar radiculopathy. They looked at the patients’ responses at 6 weeks, 12 weeks, and 52 weeks. It was a multi-centered trial, blinded, randomized, and controlled. They found no statistical or clinical difference between the groups over time.  At the one-year follow-up after the epidural steroid injection, pain, and disability improvement were reported at 36% and 43% of patients respectively. However, this was no different from natural recovery without treatment.

Epidural steroid injections can help. They do not help that much more than an epidural placebo injection.

Ten years later a May 2021 study in the European Spine Journal (8) examined whether epidural steroid injections are superior to epidural or non-epidural placebo injections in sciatica patients. To do this they examined the cumulative research of seventeen previously reported articles on the effectiveness of epidural injections for sciatica patients at six weeks, three months, and six-month follow-up. Secondary outcomes were described qualitatively.

  • Epidural steroid injections were superior compared to epidural placebo at six weeks and three months for leg pain and at six weeks for functional status, though the minimally clinically important difference (MCID) was not met. (Explanatory note: Simply the epidural steroid injections were superior, but not by much compared to a placebo).
  • There was no difference in Epidural steroid injections and placebo for back pain, except for non-epidural placebo at three months. Proportions of treatment success were not different.
  • Epidural steroid injections reduced analgesic (painkiller) intake in some studies and complication rates are low.

The researchers here concluded that “Epidural steroid injections induce larger improvements in pain and disability in the short term compared to epidural placebo, though the evidence is of low to moderate quality and minimally clinically important difference is not met. Strong conclusions for longer follow-up or for comparisons with a non-epidural placebo cannot be drawn due to the generally low quality of evidence and the limited number of studies. Epidural injections can be considered a safe therapy.”

In other words, Epidural steroid injections can help. They do not help that much more than an epidural placebo injection.

Long-term results in older patients

Controversy follows the use of epidural steroid injections into the possible benefits or adverse effects seen in back and leg pain. Again, let’s stress people do get benefits from epidurals and it may be the only viable option for pain relief for them.

An August 2022 paper in the European Journal of Pain (9) writes: “There is limited research on the long-term effectiveness of epidural steroid injections in older adults . . . ” In this paper, the researchers examined if based on hypotheses that older adults undergoing epidural steroid injections, compared to patients not receiving ESI:

  • (1) have worse pain, disability, and quality of life (‘outcomes’) pre-epidural steroid injections,
  • (2) have improved outcomes after epidural steroid injections and
  • (3) have improved outcomes due to a specific epidural steroid injection effect. (Was it the epidural steroid injections or a combination of treatments that helped the patient).

This study was a multi-thousand-patient study.

Here is what the researchers found: “In this large, two-year, prospective study in older adults with a new episode of low back pain, back pain, leg pain, disability and quality of life improved after epidural steroid injections; however, propensity-score matching (statistical analysis between groups) revealed that the improvement was unlikely the result of a specific effect of the injections, indicating that epidural steroids are unlikely to provide long-term benefits in older adults with new episodes of back and leg pain.”

What does this mean? The patients got better, but the researchers did not think that the treatment with epidurals was the reason for it. The patients got improvement from other means. (There are studies to suggest that back and leg pain can resolve itself or that a change of lifestyle or daily habits may contribute to the alleviation of pain).

Opioids and epidurals

An April 2023 paper in the medical journal Spine (10)  assessed pain and function in older adults who took opioids for lumbar spinal stenosis and who received epidural injections. They found that “among older adults with lumbar spinal stenosis who are receiving epidural injections, those treated with opioids at baseline had similar outcomes to those who were not.”

Epidural Steroid Injections Risks and Concerns

The caption of this image reads Transforaminal epidural injection. A transforaminal epidural requires the very precise placement of the needle into the spinal canal from the side. This allows the injected solution to travel to the area of the nerve entrapment.

Concern: What is that cortisone doing to your whole body?

Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center published a December 2019 study in the journal Current Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Reports. (11) What they were questioning is what were the side effects of “systemic absorption of corticosteroids occurs following epidural administration.”

Side-effects group 1:

Central steroid response:

  • including sleeplessness,
  • non-positional headache,
  • insomnia,
  • hiccups,
  • and increased radicular pain represents some of the most common immediate or delayed adverse events related to epidural steroid injections

Side-effects group 2:

The systemic effects of corticosteroids themselves. These include:

  • hyperglycemia,
  • hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis suppression,
  • decreased bone mineral density, and others.

Suppression of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis can impair digestive functions, and the immune system, cause sexual dysfunction, problems of mood and emotional swings, and possible impairment of the body’s energy-producing systems that will lead to excessive fatigue.

Concern: Spinal pain after the epidural shot

It is clear that Epidural Steroid Injections are a cause of concern to patients and doctors. Recent research cites multiple case reports of neurological complications resulting from epidurals that have led the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue a warning, requiring label changes, and warning of serious neurological events, some resulting in death. The FDA has identified 131 cases of neurological adverse events, including 41 cases of arachnoiditis. A review of the literature reveals an overwhelming proportion of the complications are related to transforaminal epidural injections, of which cervical transforaminal epidural injections constituted the majority of neurological complications. (12)

General Concerns:

Italian pain specialists writing in the Polish medical journal Anaesthesiology Intensive Therapy (13) simply said this:

“We concluded that even if epidural steroid injection is one of the most widely- -used techniques to treat radicular pain, it must be administered cautiously, with careful monitoring for systemic side effects. At the very least, a standardized protocol is necessary.”

Understanding side-effects – Epidural steroid injections CAN NOT be repeated without concern regarding the duration of time between injections.

In May 2020, the journal Pain Medicine,(14) published a section of the journal titled: “Fact Finders for Patient Safety.” In this section came the findings of the Spine Intervention Society’s Patient Safety Committee. What were these findings? The identification of “Two Myths.”

  • Myth #1: Epidural steroid injections can be repeated without concern regarding the duration of time between injections.
  • Myth #2: A “series” of epidural steroid injections are sometimes required regardless of the clinical response to a single epidural steroid injection.

Myths are busted you should not offer Epidural steroid injections in this way:

What was published as “fact,” was:

  • Fact:
    • After an epidural steroid injection, a period of up to 14 days may be needed to assess the clinical response.
    • Systemic effects on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis may last three weeks or longer. (These are the well-known side effects of epidurals, they include Cushing’s syndrome where a fatty hump may develop between the shoulders, a rounded face (moon face), and pink or purple stretch marks.)
    • These factors must be considered when determining if or when another Epidural steroid injection is indicated.
    • There is no evidence to support the routine performance of a “series” of repeat injections without regard to the clinical response.”

Adrenal insufficiency, iatrogenic Cushing’s syndrome, hyperglycemia, osteoporosis, and immunological or infectious diseases.

In January 2021 a paper published in the journal Anesthesia and Pain Medicine (15) did offer suggestions that epidural steroid injection complications were rare. Here are the learning points of that paper.

  • Epidural steroid injection is a highly effective treatment that can be used to bridge the gap between physical therapy and surgery. Recently, it has been increasingly used clinically.
  • Common complications include hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis suppression, adrenal insufficiency, iatrogenic Cushing’s syndrome, hyperglycemia, osteoporosis, and immunological or infectious diseases.
  • Other less common complications include psychiatric problems and ocular (eye and vision) ailments. However, the incidence of complications related to epidural steroids is not high, and most of them are not serious.

Side Effect: Epidural steroid injection and bone loss

  • Recent research says epidural steroids for back pain rob postmenopausal women of bone.

Research suggests that a single epidural steroid injection in postmenopausal women adversely affects the bone mineral density of the hip. Enough so that doctors should be considering options when contemplating treatment for radiculopathy.

Writing in the medical journal Spine, (16doctors noted:

“A single Epidural steroid injection in postmenopausal women adversely affects Bone Mineral Density of the hip.  . . . Our findings show that epidural administration of corticosteroids has a deleterious effect on bone, which should be considered when contemplating treatment options for radiculopathy. The resulting decrease in Bone Mineral Density, while slight, suggests that Epidural steroid injections should be used with caution in those at a risk for fracture.”

In other words, for some women, the temporary relief from back pain can lead to a hip fracture.

A July 2023 paper in the Joint Bone Spine (17) wrote:

“The unfavorable effect of oral Glucocorticoids on bone health is well-documented. The ensuing from their use of glucocorticoid-induced osteoporosis is the most common cause of medication-induced osteoporosis and fractures. It is uncertain, however, if, and to what extent, glucocorticoids administered by other routes affect the skeleton.” In this study, the researchers looked at current evidence on the effect of inhaled glucocorticoids, epidural and intra-articular steroid injections, and topical glucocorticoids on bone health. Here is what they found:

“Although evidence is limited and weak, it seems that a small proportion of the administered glucocorticoids may be absorbed, enter the systemic circulation, and adversely affect the skeleton. Potent glucocorticoids, higher doses, and longer treatment duration seem to infer the greater risk for bone loss and fractures.”

Therapy with glucocorticoids often results in bone loss and glucocorticoid-induced osteoporosis

Other researchers, however, disagree. While they agree that corticosteroids often result in bone loss and corticosteroid-induced osteoporosis, they say it has nothing to do with bone mineral density because no link has been made between epidural steroid injection and bone mineral density. Further smaller doses are okay. Here’s what researchers from South Korea wrote in the journal Pain Physician. (18)

  • “(Our) data suggest that epidural steroid injection using triamcinolone (over 200 mg) for a period of one year will have a negative effect on bone mineral density in postmenopausal women treated for lower back pain. However, epidural steroid injection therapy using a maximum cumulative triamcinolone dose of 200 mg in one year would be a safe treatment method with no significant impact on Bone Mineral Density.”

Fortunately, these researchers recognized their limitations: First, this study is limited by the fact that it was retrospective. Second, this study did not consider the use of epidural steroid injection with high-dose corticosteroids. “Third, our study did not include any long-term assessments of the effects of epidural steroid injection on Bone Mineral Density.”

Therapy with glucocorticoids often results in bone loss and glucocorticoid-induced osteoporosis.

So the findings do not include long-term high-dose steroid use. After further review, another South Korean group of researchers came back and published it in the journal Pain Physician:(19)

“Therapy with glucocorticoids often results in bone loss and glucocorticoid-induced osteoporosis. However, the relationship between epidural steroid injection, bone mineral density, and vertebral fracture remains to be determined.” Confused? Read the research, it wasn’t the steroids – it was old age:

  • “Older age and lower bone mineral density were associated with an osteoporotic fracture in postmenopausal women treated for low back pain with epidural steroid injection. The epidural steroid injections were not associated with low bone mineral density or fracture.”

Again, the limitations were that this research was not valid for patients who received high-dose corticosteroids and that the study group was too small to provide an assessment.

In November 2021 doctors at the Hospital for Special Surgery wrote in the journal Osteoporosis International (20), that while evidence is limited, studies suggest that epidural steroid injection may cause bone loss, particularly those investigating (volume loss) body mineral density. Larger doses appear to confer greater risk.” A December 2020 paper in the journal Pain Research and Management (21) suggested that epidural steroid injection could be used without concerns regarding osteoporosis and fractures in elderly women with diabetes if low doses of glucocorticoids are used.

Repeated epidural steroid injections offered no additional long-term benefit

Here is a recent study. Let’s look at the list of leading universities that participated in this study: University of Washington, Oregon Health and Science University, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Spine Unit, Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, University of Texas, Stanford University Medical Center, University of Colorado, the University of Pittsburgh, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, and let’s add the Mayo Clinic, Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, and Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research. Clearly, there is a lot of knowledge behind this research.

In this study, published in the journal Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, August 2017, (22and led by the University of Washington’s Comparative Effectiveness, Cost and Outcomes Research Center, doctors made these observations concerning the overall long-term effectiveness of treatment with epidural corticosteroid injections for lumbar central spinal stenosis and the effect of repeat injections, including crossover injections of lidocaine alone, on outcomes through 12 months.

For lumbar spinal stenosis symptoms, epidural injections of corticosteroid plus lidocaine offered no benefits from 6 weeks to 12 months beyond that of injections of lidocaine alone in terms of self-reported pain and function or reduction in use of opioids and spine surgery. In patients with improved pain and function 6 weeks after initial injection, these outcomes were maintained at 12 months. However, the trajectories of pain and function outcomes after 3 weeks did not differ by injectate type. Repeated injections of either type offered no additional long-term benefit if injections in the first 6 weeks did not improve pain.

Epidural steroid injections and episodes of depression

A June 2023 paper from doctors at Baylor College of Medicine, published in the journal Case Reports (23) tells the story of three patients with epidural steroid injection, depression, and mood disorders.

“Epidural steroid injection‐induced depression may be an overlooked side effect of steroid injections. Mood symptoms may occur more frequently than originally thought as subclinical symptoms may go unreported by many chronic pain patients. Following up on a detailed post‐injection psychiatric history is a challenging endeavor. Many patients have a complex psychiatric history characterized by multiple comorbid psychiatric syndromes that make it difficult to anchor new mood symptoms to an exogenous substance.”

What is being said is that many people, because of the years of pain, may already suffer from depression and other mood disorders. It is suspected that epidural steroid injection may cause further or worsening depressive symptoms but it is difficult to tell and separate a new onset of depression from an existing one. The doctors of this paper suggest: “In considering candidacy for epidural steroid injection, the rare, but significant side effects of depression or other psychiatric manifestations should be discussed with patients at a minimum during the consent process. This potentially life‐altering side effect should especially be disclosed as part of the informed consent process to those who have had or are currently suffering from depression.”

A side effect seen in surgery – Dural Tears

In December 2019, doctors at the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins Hospital (24) writing in the Global Spine Journal noted that lumbar epidural steroid injection increases the risk of incidental durotomy. Incidental durotomy refers to unintended or accidental tears or punctures of the dura mater during surgery. The steroid weakened this tissue making punctures more common. The researchers concluded: “Lumbar epidural steroid injection increases the risk of incidental durotomy in patients who undergo a subsequent lumbar discectomy within six months of injection.  Spine surgeons and pain specialists should be aware of this association for appropriate preoperative planning and scheduling. Extra precaution should be taken when operating on patients with a recent history of incidental durotomy.”

Research on the effectiveness of epidural steroid injections – There is no significant consensus regarding epidural’s effectiveness

In a February 2020 study in the journal Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine, (25) researchers confirmed these findings in their own study. Suggesting: “Epidural steroid injection is a non-operative minimally invasive procedure for pain relief in spinal canal stenosis. However, there is no significant consensus regarding its efficacy.” Further, while the Epidural steroid injection could help people in the short term, which may be the goal as you are being pain managed until you are ready for surgery, it is not as helpful for people with multi-level spinal problems or people who are fighting weight problems.

We will often have people tell us that their doctors said that epidurals may or may not work, the effectiveness of treatment may rely on the maximum allowable injections over time. For some people, this will be effective. For others not. We hear the stories that go like this: I have had lower back pain L3-4-5 Spondylythesis. I had epidural steroid injections over the last three years. The pain is increasing and now radiates into my groin, hips, and legs. I now also have developed numbness.

“For lumbar spinal stenosis symptoms, epidural injections of corticosteroid plus lidocaine offered no benefits from 6 weeks to 12 months beyond that of injections of lidocaine alone.”

The learning point of this research is that a mild painkiller, such as lidocaine, works just as well as corticosteroids without corticosteroids known side effects.

In research led by the University of Washington’s Comparative Effectiveness, Cost, and Outcomes Research Center, doctors made these observations:

  • “For lumbar spinal stenosis symptoms, epidural injections of corticosteroid plus lidocaine offered no benefits from 6 weeks to 12 months beyond that of injections of lidocaine alone in terms of self-reported pain and function or reduction in the use of opioids and spine surgery.

Repeated injections of either type offered no additional long-term benefit if injections in the first 6 weeks did not improve pain

  • In patients with improved pain and function 6 weeks after the initial injection, these outcomes were maintained at 12 months. However, the trajectories of pain and function outcomes after 3 weeks did not differ by injectate type. Repeated injections of either type offered no additional long-term benefit if injections in the first 6 weeks did not improve pain.”

For some, epidurals did not work beyond 6 weeks or at all, and for those patients, further injections did not offer benefit. 

  • So for some people, the epidurals worked up to 12 months.
    For some, epidurals did not work beyond 6 weeks or at all, and for those patients, further injections did not offer benefit.

But what about my leg pain? Research: “Slightly reduced leg pain in the short-term”

In three decades of helping people with chronic pain problems, we understand that even the smallest pain relief, even for the shortest amount of time, is usually better than no pain relief at all. However, there is always a long-term price to pay for that short-term relief, and in many instances, the cost of short-term pain relief is very high in trying to manage pain in the long run.

An April 2020 study (26) examined the benefits of epidural corticosteroid injections in helping patients with lumbosacral radicular pain (sciatica) with radiating leg pain.

This study found that epidural corticosteroid injections probably slightly reduced leg pain and disability at short-term follow-ups in people with lumbosacral radicular pain. In addition, no minor or major adverse events were reported at short-term follow-up after epidural corticosteroid injections or placebo injections. Although the current review identified additional clinical trials, the available evidence still provides only limited support for the use of epidural corticosteroid injections in people with lumbosacral radicular pain as the treatment effects are small, mainly evident at short-term follow-up and may not be considered clinically important by patients and clinicians (i.e. mean difference lower than 10%).

In other words, not that much help in the short term, and the benefits are small. 

Epidural steroid injections “do not repair damage and long-term clinical improvement is lacking”

In a recent study, published in the medical journal Schmerz (Pain), (27) German doctors made a significant discovery. Chronic lumbar pain syndromes without neurological (nerve and muscle) deficits can be caused by many problems not just what shows up on an MRI scan looking for back pain. In many cases, a diseased intervertebral disc is found on radiological examination but the clinical relevance of these findings is not clear.

But there is a problem with inflammation. A transforaminal epidural injection (the injection near the nerve root inflammation) into the lumbar region can reduce inflammation and therefore improve temporary treatment outcomes, but it does not repair damage and long-term clinical improvement is lacking.  This agrees with the above research on the lack of long-term effectiveness.

The only best use of epidural steroid injection is to provide pain relief until spinal surgery can be performed. Maybe that is the goal of your treatment now. But there are options for surgery too.

In agreement with the previous study that epidural steroid injection does not repair damage and long-term clinical improvement is lacking, in a 2015 study (28) where doctors suggest that the only best use of epidural steroid injection is to provide pain relief until spinal surgery can be performed. What do they base this on?

  • In this study, the immediate response rate to transforaminal epidural steroid injection was 80.2% in patients with clinically diagnosed lumbar radiculopathy and magnetic resonance imaging of the lumbar spine suggesting nerve root compression.
  • Of patients with single-level radiculopathy and multiple-level radiculopathy, 80.3% and 78.6% expressed an immediate response to transforaminal epidural steroid injection, respectively.
    • The analgesic effect lasted for 1 to 3 weeks or less in 15% of patients
    • for 3 to 12 weeks 15.9% of patients,
    • and for more than 12 weeks in 92 (39.7%) patients.
  • Of the 232 patients in this study, 106 (45.7%) were offered surgery, with 65 (61.3%) undergoing operation, and 42 (64.6%) requiring spinal fusion in addition to decompression surgery.

Conclusions: The immediate response to transforaminal epidural steroid injection was approximately 80%. Transforaminal epidural steroid injection is a useful diagnostic, prognostic, and short-term therapeutic tool for lumbar radiculopathy.

Although transforaminal epidural steroid injection cannot alter the need for surgery in the long term, it is a reasonably safe procedure to provide short-term pain relief and as a preoperative assessment tool.

Concern: Epidural stopgap until surgery

Let’s bring this research up to 2020. As you see in medicine, research into effective treatments for back pain can go on for decades and the problems of the past are still problems today.

In November 2020, researchers publishing in the Journal of Pain Research (29) examined the clinical effectiveness of the use of fluoroscopically guided therapeutic selective nerve root block as non-surgical symptom management of lumbar radiculopathy.

Study highlights:

  • 76 patients with low back pain and/or sciatica, 25 (32.8%) are men and 51 (67.2%) are women.
  • All had a selective nerve root block.
  • 69 (90.7%) patients improved immediately after the procedure.
  • Out of the total, 22 (28.9%) patients showed a long-term relief of symptoms and did not experience any recurrence during the three months of follow-up, while 47 (61.8%) experienced a recurrence of pain. Of patients experiencing a recurrence of symptoms, 35 needed surgery.

The conclusion, as many conclusions are. These injections can help some people. Here is exactly what the study said:

“Therapeutic selective nerve root block is an important procedure in the pain management of patients with lumbar radiculopathy caused by lumbar disc prolapse and foraminal stenosis. Our study showed that avoidance of surgery was achieved in up to 54% of patients; pain relief for at least 6 months was achieved in up to 29% of patients after a single therapeutic selective nerve root block. This makes it a very good second line of management after conservative treatment and a possible method to delay, and sometimes cease, the need for surgery.”

How about evidence that the epidurals are only masking pain and could be making your situation worse? Research: Pain relief was not reflected in a significant immediate improvement in motor performance. Pain relief did not fix your structural problems

For many people, the goal is pain relief. Whatever way this can be achieved is seen as a necessary outcome. But are you only masking a worsening situation?

Here is a piece of research from doctors at the University of Arizona that makes a very good point that the only best use of epidural steroid injection is to provide pain relief until spinal surgery can be performed. It was published in 2016 in the journal Clinical Biomechanics. (30)

The researchers looked at people with degenerative facet arthritis who were treated with medial or intermediate branch nerve block injections.

Then they asked these people about their pain and measured these people with standardized scoring systems for a health condition, disability, and objective motor performance measures (gait, balance, and timed-up-and-go) at pre-surgery, immediately after the injection, one-month, three-month, and 12-month follow-ups.

  • Results showed that average pain and disability scores improved by 51% and 24%, respectively among patients, only one month after injection.
  • Similarly, improvement in motor performance was most noticeable in one-month post-injection measurements; most improvements were observed in gait speed (14% normal walking) hip sway within balance tests, and turning velocity within the timed-up-and-go test.

Interpretations of study:

  • The spinal injection can temporarily (one to three months) improve motor performance in degenerative facet osteoarthropathy patients.
  • The motor performance showed maximum improvements in one or three months after spinal injections; motor performance deteriorated after these maximum points toward baseline values. (The patient was back where they started from).

The next part the researchers found interesting and so did we.

Patients had a significant pain reduction immediately after injection with a similar reduction of more than 50% observed one month after the injection. This suggests that patients perceived pain reduction immediately after spinal injection; however, the pain relief was not reflected in a significant immediate improvement in motor performance.

The epidural masks the back pain but does not improve the degenerative disease condition and can put the patient at risk of hurting themselves because they feel less pain and think their back is getting better. This is not so. This is why some surgeons suggest epidurals should not be given at all, the patient should just go right to surgery.

“Unnecessary multiple epidural steroid injections delay surgery for massive lumbar disc herniation”

There are numerous research papers that suggest that the use of epidural steroid injection subjects patients to complications by withholding surgery and that spinal surgeons should actively take back patients who could benefit more from surgery. So here the recommendation is to forget the epidural steroid injections altogether – go right for the surgery.

In the Spine Journal (31), doctors from Massachusetts General Hospital, Northwestern School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine / Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, suggested that Epidural steroid injections may provide a small surgery-sparing effect in the short-term compared to control injections, and reduce the need for surgery in some patients who would otherwise proceed to surgery.

Dr. Nancy Epstein writing in the journal Surgical Neurology International:(32)

  • Epidural steroid injections, transforaminal lumbar epidural steroid injections, and transforaminal epidural steroid injections are the most commonly performed procedures in the United States for managing chronic low back pain.
  • The procedures are not Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved for this application and are associated with major risks and complications.
  • These steroid injections have been shown to be equally effective as intramuscular steroids, epidural saline, or interlaminar saline injections, have no demonstrable long-term benefits, and have not reduced the need for surgery.
  • Pain specialists, typically including anesthesiologists, physiatrists, and radiologists, are neither trained in neurology or spinal surgery but are increasingly performing Epidural steroid injections/variants for patients with surgical spinal lesions.
  • Even more recently, these physicians who are not spine specialists are performing percutaneous discectomies resulting in major morbidity/mortality.

This too is borne out by stories we hear from patients. Here is an example:

I was diagnosed with spinal stenosis. My S4 has moved forward on S5. This is causing pinching of the nerve and the narrowing of the space in my spine causing my stenosis. I had two epidural injections and was happy to have improved about 50%. The epidural started wearing off and I started having shooting pain in my lower spine. If I stand too long or walk too far the pain gets significant.

I was given Cymbalta (an anti-depressant – anti-anxiety medication) and it reduced my pain dramatically. Unfortunately, I developed some of the common side effects, and now my doctor wants to go straight to spinal fusion surgery.

Despite a high success rate at six months, the majority of subjects experienced a recurrence of symptoms at some time during the subsequent five years

A team of Stanford researchers describes a similar plight to the person above. In their 2018 study published in the Spine Journal (33), they described the common experience of patients over a five-year time frame since the initiation of their transforaminal epidural steroid injections.  Transforaminal epidural steroid injections are given at the foramen (why they are called Transforaminal) where the nerve roots exit the back of the spine.

The researchers noted that “Despite a high success rate at six months, the majority of subjects experienced a recurrence of symptoms at some time during the subsequent five years. Fortunately, few reported current symptoms and a small minority required additional injections, surgery, or opioid pain medications. Lumbar disc herniation is a disease that can be effectively treated in the short-term by transforaminal epidural steroid injections  or surgery, but long-term recurrence rates are high regardless of treatment received.”

It is not suggested to offer multiple epidural steroid injections

An April 2022 study published in the journal Pain Management (34) followed the lines of suggestion that epidural steroid injections present a sometimes unnecessary delay in getting people to surgery. In this study, the patients ultimately had a minimally invasive lumbar decompression surgery or “MILD® Procedure.” What the researchers assessed was whether or not more than one epidural steroid injection in these patients with spinal stenosis was of any benefit. The focus of this paper was at what point was it decided that the epidurals were no longer benefitting the patients and that surgery should proceed. To do this the researchers looked at the patients who had no epidurals, one epidural, or more than one epidural. When comparing the effect of one epidural versus two epidurals the researchers found that those patients who had more than one epidural injection were not benefitting from the extra injection and that the injection caused a delay to surgery. One of the concluding remarks the researchers made was that after the failure of the first epidural steroid injection, it is not suggested to offer multiple epidural steroid injections.

This brings us to another interesting point: Delay of treatment, any treatment.

We started talking about delays in treatment. Researchers at Penn State University writing in the medical journal Clinical Spine Surgery (35) sought to determine what factors could or could not predict which patients would benefit most from caudal epidural steroid injections in managing chronic low back pain and radiculopathy.

Among the findings:

  • The duration of the patient’s symptoms was found to be negatively significantly related to lesser pain improvement.
  • For each week of the duration of symptoms, the percentage of improvement decreases.

The longer the patient waited for treatment, the less likely the caudal epidural steroid injections would work. 

Finally, do you really need that surgery? If you have been prescribed epidural steroid injections and painkillers. The answer is yes, you will probably need that surgery.

A July 2020 study published in the Global Spine Journal (36) comes from researchers at the Cleveland Clinic and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. In this patient study, these doctors compared conservative treatments in patients with lumbar intervertebral disc herniations who were successfully managed non-operatively versus patients who failed conservative therapies and elected to undergo surgery (microdiscectomy).

  • The study examined the clinical records of more than one-quarter million (277,941 patients) with lumbar intervertebral disc herniations. Of these, 269,713 (97.0%) were successfully managed with nonoperative treatments, while 8228 (3.0%) failed maximal nonoperative therapy and underwent a lumbar microdiscectomy.
  • Maximal nonoperative therapy failures occurred more frequently in males (3.7%), and patients with a history of lumbar epidural steroid injections (4.5%) or preoperative opioid use (3.6%).

In other words, men, getting epidural steroid injections or using painkillers will eventually need surgery. These two pain treatments do not stop the progression to surgery.

“More than one out of every four patients undergoing epidural steroid injections for lumbar herniation or stenosis subsequently had surgery, and nearly one of six had surgery within the first year.”

Lumbosacral epidural steroid injections have increased dramatically despite a narrowing of the clinical indications for use. One potential indication is to avoid or delay surgery, yet little information exists regarding surgery rates after epidural steroid injections.

What the researchers then intended to figure out was “the proportion of patients having surgery after lumbar epidural steroid injections for disc herniation or stenosis and to identify the timing and factors associated with this progression.” The study was comprised of 179,025 patients

  • Within 6 months, 12.5% of epidural steroid injection patients underwent lumbar surgery.
  • By 1 year, 16.9% had surgery, and by 5 years, 26.1% had surgery.
  • Patients with herniation had surgery at rates of up to five-fold to seven-fold higher, with the highest rates of surgery in younger patients and those with both herniation and stenosis.
  • Medical comorbidities (previous treatment for drug use, congestive heart failure, obesity, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypercholesterolemia, and other cardiac complications) were associated with lower surgery rates. (Explanatory note: these other health conditions made the surgical recommendation risky).

Conclusions: “In the long term, more than one out of every four patients undergoing epidural steroid injections for lumbar herniation or stenosis subsequently had surgery, and nearly one of six had surgery within the first year.”

I have failed back surgery and I needed to do something

We will often be contacted by people following a failed back surgery. Sometimes they have a long story, sometimes we can tell that they have a lot of pain and frustration because they only tell a short story. For example, I have lower back pain. I have lumbar fusion. The surgery was very successful for a few years. Now I have significant pain. I have had three epidurals and various drugs. I needed to do something. But now even these injections and pills do not help me.

An Alternative to Epidural Steroid Injections is Prolotherapy for Back Pain

In this image, the caption reads Prolotherapy to the lower back. Injured capsular, sacroiliac, and other ligaments can be thickened and strengthened with Prolotherapy

Prolotherapy to the lower back. Injured capsular, sacroiliac and other ligaments can be thickened and strengthened with Prolotherapy

Temporary pain relief is not what pain patients should be seeking. Permanent healing and pain relief should be the goal. Maybe pain patients don’t believe there is a cure for their pain, so they seek as many pain relief options as possible. The problem is that many pain relief treatments include steroids and anti-inflammatory agents that can make the injury even worse. As the injury gets worse, a person is forced to look for stronger and more complex pain relief. It’s a vicious cycle.

The reason comprehensive Prolotherapy is favored in our practice over epidurals is that Prolotherapy injections repair damaged tissue. In the above research, the pain is being caused by spinal tissue that needs repair, epidurals do not repair this tissue. The longer the patient waits for treatment, the more damage occurs and the greater the likelihood of surgical intervention being necessary. Prolotherapy can help patients repair damage and avoid surgery.

Prolotherapy is the opposite of epidural steroid injections.

Prolotherapy creates inflammation to bring blood flow and healing factors to the injured tissue. Any neck or back pain that is related to joint degeneration or ligament injury can be treated effectively with Prolotherapy.

The Spinal ligament repair injection treatment option Prolotherapy

Summary and Learning Points of Prolotherapy to the low back

  • Prolotherapy is multiple injections of simple dextrose into the damaged spinal area.
  • Each injection goes down to the bone, where the ligaments meet the bone at the fibro-osseous junction. It is at this junction we want to stimulate repair of the ligament attachment to the bone.
  • We treat the whole low back area to include the sacroiliac or SI joint. In the photo above, the patient’s sacroiliac area is being treated to make sure that we get the ligament insertions and attachments of the SI joint in the low back.

  • Why the black crayon lines? This patient has a curvature of her spine, scoliosis, so it is important to understand where the midpoint (center) of her spine is. In this patient, we are going to go up to the horizontal line into the thoracic area which is usually not typical of all treatments.
  • After treatment we want the patient to take it easy for about 4 days.
  • Depending on the severity of the low back pain condition, we may need to offer 3 to 10 treatments every 4 to 6 weeks.

What are we seeing in this image? L5-S1 disc herniation.

Many of you reading this article will look at this MRI image and recognize something familiar. Maybe your doctor showed you your MRI and pointed to a similar spot as that of the image below at your L5-S1 and told you, “This is what is causing your pain.” In our article Is your MRI or CT Scan sending you to a back surgery you do not need? We discuss at length the problems of MRI interpretations and how these problems send people to surgery they do not need.

In the next section, we will present evidence for a simple non-steroid injection treatment to deal with problems like this.

Comparing the use of lidocaine alone and lidocaine with steroid.

A May 2022 paper from the Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine, College of Medicine, Ewha Womans University, Seoul, Korea (37) compared lidocaine injections to lidocaine plus steroid injections given as a transforaminal epidural block for patients suffering from lumbar disc herniation. The researchers describe that the lumbar transforaminal epidural block (TFEB) has been demonstrated as an effective treatment for radicular pain stemming from lumbar disc herniation. The researchers here assessed whether the accepted notions that steroid plus local anesthetic is more effective in helping the patient than local anesthetic alone.

  • A total of 54 patients received lidocaine only or 8-mL injections of 0.33% lidocaine with 5 mg of dexamethasone.
  • The patients were then assessed for pain intensity at baseline and 4 weeks after the procedure. Secondary outcomes included the change of functional disability between baseline and 4 weeks after the procedure, pain scores during injection, and adverse effects.

Results:  The researchers reported that both groups showed a significant reduction in axial and radicular pain and improvement in the functional status at the outpatient visit four weeks after the Lumbar transforaminal epidural block (TFEB). However, between the groups, there were no significant differences noted in terms terms back pain or radicular pain.

In the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, doctors said: “Intra-articular Prolotherapy provided significant relief of sacroiliac joint pain, and its effects lasted longer than those of steroid injections”(38)

In 2017, research from Prolotherapy doctors including Liza Maniquis-Smigel, MD; Kenneth Dean Reeves, MD; Howard Jeffrey Rosen, MD; John Lyftogt,  MD;  and David Rabago, MD; published in the journal Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine, found that among participants with chronic low back pain and either buttock or leg pain, 10 mL of dextrose injected in the caudal epidural space, compared with the injection of 10 mL of normal saline, resulted in substantial, consistent, and significant analgesia within 15 minutes that lasted at least 48 hours.

These findings suggest for the first time that 5% dextrose injected in the caudal space may confer a pain-specific neurogenic effect at the dorsal root level. (39)

There is plenty of research to support the use of Prolotherapy for back pain (especially lumbar pain), here are some of the research summaries.

  • University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine
    • One hundred and ninety (190) patients were treated between, June 1999-May 2006.
    • Both pain and Quality of Life scores were significantly improved at least 1 year after the last treatment.
    • This study suggests that Prolotherapy using a variety of proliferants can be an effective treatment for low back pain from presumed ligamentous dysfunction for some patients when performed by a skilled practitioner. (40)
  • Harold Wilkinson MD, in the journal The Pain Physician
    • Prolotherapy can provide significant relief of axial pain (soft tissue damage) and tenderness combined with functional improvement, even in “failed back syndrome” patients. (41)

Citing our own published research (42) in which we followed 145 patients who had suffered from back pain on average for nearly five years, we examined not only the physical aspect of Prolotherapy but the mental aspect of treatment as well.

  • In our study, 55 patients were told by their medical doctor(s) that there were no other treatment options for their pain, and a subset of 26 patients were told by their doctor(s) that surgery was their only option.
  • In these 145 low backs,
    • pain levels decreased from 5.6 to 2.7 after Prolotherapy;
    • 89% experienced more than 50% pain relief with Prolotherapy;
    • More than 80% showed improvements in walking and exercise ability, anxiety, depression, and overall disability
    • 75% percent were able to completely stop taking pain medications.

If our study, mentioned above, was solely based on getting 75% of patients off their pain medications, that would be wildly successful in itself. However, the fact that Prolotherapy was able to strengthen the patients’ spines decreases overall disability and returns these people to a normal lifestyle.

For more information on the combined use of PRP and Prolotherapy please see Prolotherapy treatments for lumbar instability and low back pain.

PRP versus steroid for treating lumbar disc herniation and lumbar radiculopathy

  • PRP treatment takes your blood, spins it into concentrated blood platelets, and reinjects it back into the problem areas of the spine.
  • Your blood platelets contain growth and healing factors. When concentrated through simple centrifuging, your blood plasma becomes “rich” in healing factors, thus the name Platelet RICH plasma.

A May 2022 study comparing PRP versus steroids for treating lumbar disc herniation and lumbar radiculopathy comes to us from the Department of Neurosurgery, University Medical Center, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It was published in the Asian Journal of Surgery (43). The researchers noted that lumbar radiculopathy is typically treated by neurosurgery or guided lumbar epidural steroids for pain relief. In their study, the doctors replaced the steroid with Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) via the transforaminal route in the treatment of radicular pain in patients with lumbar disc herniation.

  • Twenty-five patients participated in this study.
  • They received an injection of PRP under fluoroscopic guidance via transforaminal epidural injection into the area of the affected nerve root. Their outcomes were assessed with pain and disability questionnaires and the Straight Leg Raising Test (SLRT).

Study Results: “Patients who received transforaminal injections with autologous PRP showed statistically significant improvements on all three evaluation tools. The improvements were sustained over a twelve-month follow-up and there were no associated complications. Transforaminal injection with autologous PRP helps patients relieve chronic pains and be able to return to work. Besides, autologous PRP can be considered as a good alternative to epidural steroids in the management of lumbar disc herniation.”

Summary and contact us. Can we help you?

The most common reason given by physicians for the use of epidural or other steroid injections is to treat a pinched nerve. We do occasionally use cortisone, epidural injections, facet blocks, and a host of other injection techniques. There are select cases that may truly have a need for cortisone or a nerve block, but these are rarely given in our office. However, without treating the cause, the beneficial effects will only be temporary and the person will be left with the same symptoms once the steroid shot wears off. That is exactly what the scientific literature shows and has been demonstrated in the research above. Even with a pinched nerve in the neck or lower back, no evidence exists supporting injections of steroids into and around the nerve for long-term benefit.

We hope you found this article informative and that it helped answer many of the questions you may have surrounding your back pain challenges.  If you would like to get more information specific to your challenges please email us: Get help and information from our Caring Medical staff

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