Epidural Steroid Injections Won’t Solve Your Back Pain

By David Hanscom, MD, PNN Columnist

A lawsuit was in the news recently about a Kentucky doctor who refused to give his patients pain medication unless they had epidural steroid injections.

Really? I have run across this scenario many times throughout my 32 years of performing complex spine surgery. It is a huge problem from several perspectives.

First of all, epidural steroid injections don’t provide lasting relief for any indication. This is particularly true when they are recommended for neck or back pain. There is not any research paper indicating a significant benefit. Yet they continue to be administered at a high rate.

I prescribed them sparingly for acute ruptured discs, where the natural history is for them to resolve without surgery most of the time. The steroids do knock down the inflammatory response that occurs around the disc material, so it buys some time and sanity while the body heals.

I also used them occasionally for spinal stenosis (constriction of the nerves). Pain in the arms and legs would usually improve for a short period of time.

What was unexpected was that many patients that I had on the schedule for surgery would cancel because their pain would disappear when they utilized other tools to calm down the body’s stress hormones. The more favorable hormone levels changed their pain threshold.

Epidural steroid injections as a stand-alone treatment might be of some benefit, but they aren’t going to definitively solve your chronic pain. Whatever benefit that a patient may feel probably comes from the systemic effects of the drug. Steroids make everything feel better, but it’s unfortunate that there are so many severe side effects.

bigstock-Doctor-performing-epidural-ane-46521433.jpg

Let me share what happened to one patient.

Ralph was one of my favorite patients. I worked with him for over 20 years. I haven’t met a more well-intentioned human being. By the time I first met him, he had undergone over ten surgeries and was fused from his neck to his pelvis. He never had relief from his chronic back pain. I had to perform a couple of major surgeries just to get him standing up straight.

I worked hard with Ralph on a structured rehab approach with some modest success. I lost track of the number of phone calls. He had a lot of stress at home and was helping to raise a grandchild. In spite of his pain, he kept moving forward.

Then he broke through and had a dramatic decrease in his pain and better function. Ralph wasn’t pain free and his function was permanently limited because his spine was fused. But he was stable on a relatively low dose of opioids. We were both pleased.

I didn’t hear from Ralph for many years until he called me from his local hospital. He was quite ill. His entire spine was severely infected. His primary care physician, who took care of his meds, had retired. No one else would take care of his needs and he was referred to a local pain clinic, which performed a high volume of spinal injections. They would only prescribe opioids if Ralph agreed to the injections.

Not only are injections ineffective for back pain, they really don’t work in the presence of 12 prior surgeries. Ralph’s back was a mass of scar tissue, rods and bone without much of a nerve supply. There is also less blood supply in scar tissue and a much higher chance of infection. Where would you even place a needle if the whole back is fused?

We admitted Ralph and had to open up his whole spine, which was infected with several hundred milliliters of gross pus. It took another two operations to wash him out and get the wound closed. He eventually did well, and we continue to stay in touch.

Ralph had to undergo a proven ineffective procedure in a high-risk setting in order to obtain pain medications that were effective. He became seriously ill, underwent three additional surgeries with the attendant pain and misery, and the cost to society was over a hundred thousand dollars. I rest my case. 

David+Hanscom.jpg

Dr. David Hanscom is a spinal surgeon who has helped hundreds of back pain sufferers by teaching them how to calm their central nervous systems without the use of drugs or surgery.

In his book Back in ControlHanscom shares the latest developments in neuroscience research and his own personal history with pain.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.