FDA Won’t Change Warning Label for Steroid Injections

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has decided not to toughen its warning label on the use of epidural steroid injections – despite the risk of serious and sometimes fatal neurological problems caused by the procedure. The injections are commonly used to treat neck and back pain.

Last year, the FDA required all injectable glucocorticoid products to carry labels warning that “serious neurologic events, some resulting in death, have been reported with epidural injection” and that the “safety and effectiveness of epidural administration of corticosteroids have not been established.”

Since then, the agency has been lobbied by interventional pain physicians who perform the injections to weaken the warning label; while patient activists wanted even tougher language used. The FDA will do neither.

“The FDA has decided not to modify the warning about serious neurologic events. Without question, serious (sometimes fatal) neurologic events occur with epidural glucocorticoid injection. Given the large number of these procedures performed, these events appear to be rare; however, a population-based study would be needed to establish a valid estimate of their frequency,” wrote several FDA scientists in an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The use of steroids in epidural injections (ESI’s) has never been approved by the FDA, but millions of the procedures are performed every year by doctors who use steroids “off label” – which the agency considers “part of the practice of medicine and not regulated by FDA.” 

As Pain News Network has reported, ESI’s can be a lucrative procedure for physicians, depending on insurance payments and where the epidurals are performed. Payments can vary widely, from a few hundred dollars to over $2,000 per injection.

Critics say the injections are risky, overused, and often a waste of money. While side effects appear to be rare, they can be very serious, including loss of vision, stroke, paralysis and a disabling condition known as arachnoiditis, a painful and chronic inflammation of the spinal cord.

“What do you think would happen if the FDA were to contraindicate Depo-Medrol, the steroid that gave me adhesive arachnoiditis?” asked Gary Snook, a Montana man who developed arachnoiditis after a series of epidurals for back pain.

“In a few days we would be seeing TV commercials asking, ‘Have you received an epidural steroid injection? Do you now have burning pain in your legs? Do you now have numbness, tingling or weakness?' The phones would be ringing off the hook!’” said Snook in an email to PNN. “Because of the sheer number of injections given, even at a disability rate of 1%, every pain clinic and hospital in the country would be facing multiple lawsuits. No. The FDA had to do nothing. They had to keep a lid on this degree of medical malpractice.”

Depo-Medrol is a steroid made by Pfizer that has been banned for epidural use in Australia and New Zealand. Another steroid commonly used in ESI's, Bristol-Myers Squibb's Kenalog, does come with a warning label against epidural use, but patients are rarely told by their doctors about the risks involved.

“Sadly, in the current marketplace that packages and merchandises epidural injections for the short term address of chronic pain, (the FDA’s) decision makes it more difficult to obtain a true patient centered solution focused on the problem of preventing and treating chronic and intractable pain,” said Terri Lewis, PhD, a patient advocate. “FDA turned the keys to the asylum over to the corporations who lobbied hard to preserve their bricks and mortar investments supported by Medicare, worker's compensation, Medicaid, and private insurance.”

But the epidural injection industry didn’t get what it wanted, either. In a recent letter to the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians, which petitioned the FDA to weaken or withdraw its warning label, FDA director Janet Woodcock said the label would not change.

“FDA has identified case reports of serious neurologic adverse events associated with all ESI approaches and all injection sites,” Woodcock wrote. “The totality of the available information provides evidence adequate to support the class safety warning.”

Woodcock also denied suggestions in the petition that an FDA advisory committee known as the "Working Group" met improperly with the Multisociety Pain Workgroup (MPW), a rival coalition of anesthesiologists, surgeons and pain management doctors, to discuss safety guidelines for ESI's.

"We do not agree with the unsupported characterizations of the Working Group, its activities, or its relationship to the MPW as asserted in your Petition," Woodock wrote.

Although 17 clinical guidelines were later issued by the Working Group, Woodock said the recommendations were for the "medical community" and were "neither binding on FDA nor endorsed by the FDA."

A federal study released earlier this year said there was little evidence that epidural steroid injections were effective in treating low back pain. The MPW called the report’s conclusions "flawed" and "absurd."