Do Epidural Injections Work?February 12, 2019
A new patient with chronic back pain will often come into our office and ask us about Epidural steroid injections. Typically they will ask one of two questions: “Do Epidural steroid injections work? They ask that question because they may have been recommended to get the injection and are weighing their options.
Or question two: “Why didn’t Epidural steroid injection(s) work for me?” In response to the second question we will ask, “Did the injection help at all?” The usual response? “It worked for a couple of weeks.”
Epidural steroid injection is not a curative treatment. As an anti-inflammatory treatment it may help for a short while in reducing pain causing pressure on the spinal nerves, but, for many, it is not long-lasting. This is why research tells us that it is not a spinal surgery preventative.
Epidural spinal injections do not prevent the need for subsequent spinal surgery or provide long-term relief for many
In a 2013 study in the International journal of technology (1) assessment in health care, investigators wrote:
- “Epidural steroid injection did not improve back-specific disability more than a placebo. . . “
- “Epidural steroid injection did not significantly decrease the number of patients who underwent subsequent surgery compared with a placebo. . . “
- ” A long-term benefit of epidural steroid injections for low back pain was not suggested at 6 months or longer.”
Five years later, in June 2018, a study from Stanford University School of Medicine published in the Spine Journal (2) said this right at the top of the paper:
- “Lumbosacral epidural steroid injections have increased dramatically despite a narrowing of the clinical indications for use.”
It can be challenging to make sense of that statement to a patient with back pain. The research evidence to support the use of Epidural steroid injections is weakening, but doctors are giving more of them. At least in 2018 they were.
Let’s continue with the Stanford research
- Within 6 months, 12.5% of Epidural steroid injection patients underwent lumbar surgery.
- By 1 year, 16.9% had surgery
- By 5 years, 26.1% had surgery
- Patients with herniation had surgery at rates of up to five times to seven times higher, with the highest rates of surgery in younger patients and those with both herniation and stenosis.
“In the long term, more than one out of every four patients undergoing Epidural steroid injection for lumbar herniation or stenosis subsequently had surgery, and nearly one of six had surgery within the first year.”
An earlier 2018 study from Stanford made these observations in patients 5 years after an initial transforaminal epidural steroid injection(s). This study also appeared the Spine Journal. (3)
“Patients with lumbosacral radiculopathy from an intervertebral disc herniation are frequently treated by transforaminal epidural steroid injections. The long-term outcomes of these patients are poorly described.” A transforaminal epidural steroid injection is given at the foramen where a nerve roots exits the spine.
“Despite a high success rate at 6 months, the majority of (patients) experienced a recurrence of symptoms at some time during the subsequent 5 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.”
Do Epidural spinal injections really provide any benefit? Are they worth the risks?
Dr. Nancy Epstein of the The Albert Einstein College of Medicine wrote in the journal Surgical neurology international (4) of the risks of epidural and transforaminal steroid injections in the spine. That in fact was the title of her research study.
In this research Dr. Epstein suggests:
- For many patients with spinal pain alone and no surgical lesions, the “success” of epidural injections may simply reflect the self-limited course of the disease.
- Alternatively, although those with surgical pathology may experience transient or no pain relief, undergoing these injections (typically administered in a series of three) unnecessarily exposes them to the inherent risks, while also delaying surgery and potentially exposing them to more severe/permanent neurological deficits.
The suggestion here is that the back pain would have gone away on its own without the need for the epidural. Secondly, some people do require spinal surgery, especially in some instance of failed back surgery where there can be elevated risk for neurological damage. The concern is that epidurals are offered to patients who should be sent to surgical consultation.
In conclusion, Dr. Epstein writes: “Although the benefits for epidural steroid injections may include transient pain relief for those with/without surgical disease, the multitude of risks attributed to these injections outweighs the benefits.”
At the Magaziner Center for Wellness, Dr. Scott Greenberg has seen countless patients in his almost 20 years experience who suffer from back pain. Not just short-term back pain, but back pain that has challenged the patient for years and decades. These people continue to suffer from back pain while their doctors try to figure out what is wrong with them. Why is it so hard to figure out what is wrong with them? Why have so many treatments, and even possibly surgery, failed them?
These are questions that we have answered in our article (link) “It’s Not Always The Discs: Understanding the Root Cause of Back Pain.” In this article we explain that when we see the patients with chronic, debilitating back pain and they have an MRI that shows a disc pressing on the nerves, we do not go in and treat the disc or the area with anti-inflammatories. We treat the supporting structures around it with Platelet Rich Plasma injections. We treat the ligaments, the tendon attachments, the connective soft tissue. We also treat and strengthen the supporting structures of the pelvis with PRP injections and correct Pelvic Tilt in patients (a treatment pioneered by Scott Greenberg MD). This is not a transient short-term treatment program. This is spinal structural rebuilding. Please visit the article link to learn more about our treatments.
1 Choi HJ, Hahn S, Kim CH, Jang BH, Park S, Lee SM, Park JY, Chung CK, Park BJ. Epidural steroid injection therapy for low back pain: a meta-analysis. Int J Technol Assess Health Care. 2013 Jul;29(3):244-53. doi: 10.1017/S0266462313000342. Epub 2013 Jun 17.
2 Koltsov JC, Smuck MW, Zagel A, Alamin TF, Wood KB, Cheng I, Hu SS. Lumbar epidural steroid injections for herniation and stenosis: incidence and risk factors of subsequent surgery. The Spine Journal. 2018 Jun 26.
3 Kennedy DJ, Zheng PZ, Smuck M, McCormick ZL, Huynh L, Schneider BJ. A minimum of 5-year follow-up after lumbar transforaminal epidural steroid injections in patients with lumbar radicular pain due to intervertebral disc herniation. The Spine Journal. 2018 Jan 1;18(1):29-35.
4 Epstein NE. The risks of epidural and transforaminal steroid injections in the Spine: Commentary and a comprehensive review of the literature. Surg Neurol Int. 2013;4(Suppl 2):S74-93. Published 2013 Mar 22. doi:10.4103/2152-7806.109446