Fed Report Sparks New Debate over Steroid Injections

By Pat Anson, Editor

A government report on epidural steroid injections is sparking a new debate on the safety and effectiveness of the procedure, which is used to treat back pain in millions of people.

A coalition of spine and pain management doctors is calling the report’s conclusion that steroid injections have little value  “fundamentally false.”

But critics of the procedure say the injections are risky, overused, and often a waste of money.

The report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, said there is little evidence that epidural steroid injections were effective in treating low back pain.

“Epidural corticosteroid injections for radiculopathy were associated with immediate improvements in pain and might be associated with immediate improvements in function, but benefits were small and not sustained, and there was no effect on long-term risk of surgery,” the report states.

Epidural injections have been used for many years to relieve pain during childbirth, but they are increasingly being used to treat back pain.

An estimated 9 million epidural steroid injections are performed in the U.S. annually, and the shots have become a common procedure at many pain management clinics. Costs vary from as little as $445 to $2,000 per injection.

A coalition of 14 different societies representing anesthesiologists, surgeons and pain management doctors is lobbying the AHRQ to tone down its report, saying it has raised “significant concerns for physicians who utilize injection procedures.”

“We are fully cognizant of the issues of overutilization and inappropriate utilization, and therefore also wish to bring into focus which interventions are effective when treating the various causes of back pain,” wrote Belinda Duszynski, senior director of Policy and Practice for the International Spine Society, in a lengthy letter to the AHRQ on behalf of the Multisociety Pain Workgroup.

Duszynski’s letter, which is also being sent to a number of medical journals, claims the authors of the AHRQ report used “flawed” and “absurd” analysis on the effectiveness of the injections. She warned the report “may lead to egregious denial of access to these procedures for many patients suffering from low back pain.”

But critics say "interventionalist" doctors are simply trying to preserve a lucrative part of their practice.

“These professional medical societies are worked up because this study basically states that epidural steroid injections have small benefit, the improvements in function are not sustained, and they do not prevent surgery,” said Terri Anderson, a Montana woman whose spine was permanently damaged after receiving about 20 steroid injections for a ruptured disc in her back.

Anderson now suffers from arachnoiditis, an inflammation in the spinal membrane that causes severe chronic pain and disability.

“From my personal perspective, these spinal injections are wasting billions of dollars on the front end, plus there is no estimate high enough to account for the human suffering that this industry has brought upon the American public,” Anderson wrote in an email to Pain News Network.  “When the injections go south and the steroids are misplaced in the spinal cord, this results in life-long disabilities and suffering that cannot be described.” 

The AHRQ report is not the first to raise questions about the safety and effectiveness of epidural steroid injections. Several recent studies have found the injections raise the risk of spinal fractures and do little to control back pain. Questions about their safety also led to an order from the Food and Drug Administration last year that requires drug makers to put warning labels on injectable steroids.

“Injection of corticosteroids into the epidural space of the spine may result in rare but serious adverse events, including loss of vision, stroke, paralysis, and death,” the FDA said in a statement.

The agency has never formally approved the use of steroid injections to treat back pain. However, the procedure can still be used “off label” to treat back pain.

Many patients who were injured by spinal injections say they were never warned about the risks involved.

“The fact of the matter remains that there is no solid evidence that these injections are of any lasting benefit,” said Dawn Gonzalez, who developed arachnoiditis after a botched epidural during childbirth. “There is just no sound supporting evidence of the efficacy of corticosteroid injections in the spine, and more evidence of the contrary. Epidural steroid injections are bad science.”

A study funded by the AHRQ and published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine found that epidural steroid injections do not relieve pain in patients with lumbar spinal stenosis, a common cause of lower back and leg pain.

The Choosing Wisely campaign of the ABIM Foundation, which seeks to reduce or eliminate unnecessary medical procedures, does not oppose the use of steroid injections for back pain. But it does urge doctors not to repeat the procedure if a patient shows no improvement from a previous injection. 

Lower back pain is the world's leading cause of disability, causing more health loss than diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and asthma combined. Over 80 percent of adults have low back pain at some point in their lives.