Experts Say Epidural Steroid Injections Overused

By Pat Anson, Editor

Epidural steroid injections are being used too often to treat back pain, in part because of an insurance compensation system that encourages doctors to generate more income by using the procedure, several leading experts in pain management have told Pain News Network.

An estimated 9 million epidural steroid injections (ESI’s) are performed annually in the U.S. Epidural shots with an analgesic have long been used to relieve pain during child birth, but in recent years injections of a corticosteroid into the epidural space around the spinal cord have become an increasingly common procedure to treat back pain.

Critics say epidural injections are overused and patients risk permanent damage to their spinal cords if they get the shots too often.

“Have they been overused? Yes. And I’ve seen the complications. They happen when people have done far too many. I’ve seen people who’ve had two to three dozen epidurals in a given year,” said Forest Tennant, MD, a prominent pain management specialist in West Covina, California.

“It’s like a cumulative trauma. You just can’t keep doing epidurals on somebody or you’re going to get damage to the outer layer of the spinal cord. It’s amazing to me the number of people who’ve had epidurals and they can’t count how many they’ve had. I’ve had patients who say, ‘I’ve had a hundred.’ I mean, are you kidding me?”

One of Tennant’s patients compares epidurals to a game of Russian roulette.

“A doctor puts one bullet in the cylinder, gives it a spin, points it at your head, and pulls the trigger. Five of the six chambers are empty or ‘safe’ but the 6th chamber carries risk of a negative outcome that is so catastrophic that no one in his right mind would take the risks,” said Gary Snook, a Montana man who developed Arachnoiditis, a chronic and painful inflammation of the spinal cord, after getting a series of epidurals for back pain.

“These injections are expensive. Please take your limited health care dollars and spend them where they will do you some good. Join a gym, do pool exercises, swim, or learn and do Pilates. I know it is a lot of work, but you will not end up like me."

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.

The debate over the safety of ESI’s often pits surgeons and anesthesiologists, known as “interventionalists,” against traditional pain management doctors, who usually rely on opioids, physical therapy and other less invasive procedures to control pain.

“We have far too many interventionalists, compared to people who do medical management. I’m on the medical management side and I wish there were a lot more of us. I mean, I’m swamped,” Tennant told Pain News Network. “But on the other hand, you’ve got plenty of interventionalists who will do an epidural any day of the week. We have an imbalance of those people who want to do epidurals.

“Let’s face it. The money motive is there. And this money motive is not just the anesthesiologists. It’s the surgery centers, it’s the hospitals. And it has caused problems.”

Lobbying the Feds

Epidurals are drawing more scrutiny from federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, which has never approved the use of steroids in spinal injections. But steroids can still be used “off label” to treat back pain, which prompted the agency last year to warn that injectable steroids “may result in rare but serious adverse events, including loss of vision, stroke, paralysis, and death.”

That prompted an outcry from the Multisociety Pain Workgroup (MPW), a coalition of 14 different societies representing anesthesiologists, surgeons and pain management doctors. The group sent a letter to the FDA defending the use of epidurals and asked the agency to revise its warning.

“While complications with epidural steroid injections have been reported, and are likely underreported, serious complications are limited to isolated case reports,” the MPW letter states.

The FDA hasn’t changed its warning, but the MPW has stepped up its lobbying campaign with the federal government, recently asking the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, to tone down another report which said there was little evidence that ESI’s were effective in treating low back pain.

“We are fully cognizant of the issues of overutilization and inappropriate utilization,” the MPW said in a lengthy letter to the AHRQ, which called the report's analysis on the effectiveness of epidurals "flawed” and “absurd.”  The letter makes no mention of how to address the overuse of epidurals.

The MPW’s lobbying campaign has drawn criticism from Laxmaiah Manchikanti, MD, chairman and CEO of the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians, which is not part of the MPW coalition.



“There is no question that epidural steroid injections are over-utilized,” said Manchikanti, who is medical director of a pain clinic in Paducah, Kentucky.  “Unfortunately, MPW has been contributing to over-utilization of transforaminal epidural injections because of their own interest in this.”

Instead of addressing the overuse of epidurals, Manchikanti says the MPW is actually making the problem worse.

“They may be even promoting them. Multiple MPW signatories have numerous conflicts of interest of their own and each one is looking out for themselves,” he wrote in an email to Pain News Network.

Manchikanti has done some lobbying of his own, and is heading an effort to get the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to change its compensation system for epidural procedures.

Medicare currently pays about $132 to doctors who perform epidurals in their own offices, while physicians who do the same injections in a hospital, pain clinic or surgical center will get about $670. That “remarkable discrepancy,” according to Manchikanti, contributes to over-utilization by encouraging hospitals and other large facilities to do more epidurals.

“Office-based practices are increasingly being purchased by hospitals and in this well-documented circumstance, the ownership has the potential to change the payment dramatically,” Manchikanti wrote in a letter to the journal Pain Physician. “These patterns increase expenses by paying a much higher rate for HOPDs  (hospital outpatient services), even though they are just physician offices. This issue also favors inappropriate performance of the procedures with bundling." 

Repeated requests to the CMS for comment on this story went unanswered.

Solutions to Overuse

What can be done to reduce or eliminate the overuse of epidurals? One approach is to stop paying high reimbursement rates for the procedure.

“Site-neutral payment is the solution,” says Manchikanti. “We have been working on this issue where a hospital’s pay should be reduced to the level of ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs) or about 10% higher, and office reimbursement should be at least 60% of ASC payment.” 

“Probably everything that gets compensated well is over-utilized because it’s the compensation system. It’s a reimbursement system that pays more for treatment procedures than outcomes,” said Lynn Webster, MD, a prominent pain physician and past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, which is a part of the MPW coalition.

“I think our healthcare system is perverted and doesn’t really help us deliver better outcomes; but more procedures, more visits, and none of that’s tied to improving the quality of care.”

Like Manchikanti, Tennant and other physicians Pain News Network interviewed for this story, Webster says epidurals can be effective in managing back pain when used sparingly.

“I’ve performed many epidural steroids and as a result I was able to I think provide a great deal of relief for thousands of individuals and they didn’t have to be on any other medicines,” Webster said. “Because the epidural steroids could work for several months sometimes, I would do an epidural steroid injection once every year for some people.”

Tennant thinks the solution is limiting the number of epidurals, regardless of where they are performed.

“There’s got to be a balance here. Epidurals have a place," Tennant said. "But I do think there needs to be some standards set based on the number of epidurals one can endure, in let’s say a year’s period of time.”