5 Things to Know About Epidural Steroid Injections

By Margaret Aranda, MD, Columnist

Some patients with neck and back pain report that their doctor requires them to get epidural steroid injections (ESI's) before they are prescribed opioid pain medication. Many do not realize that the procedure or any use of drugs for spinal injection is not FDA approved and is considered "off label."

Some patients benefit from ESI’s, while others gain no pain relief or suffer serious complications. In 2014, the FDA warned that injection of corticosteroids into the epidural space of the spine may result in rare but serious neurological events, including "loss of vision, stroke, paralysis, and death."  

A 2015 commentary by FDA scientists in The New England Journal of Medicine urged doctors to carefully select patients to identify those who might benefit from spinal injections and to minimize serious risks.

Probably the worst epidural steroid catastrophe was the 2012-13 outbreak of fungal meningitis, caused by contaminated steroids produced at the New England Compounding Center. As many as 13,000 patients nationwide were exposed to the fungus, mostly through epidural injection, resulting in 751 meningitis infections and at least 64 deaths.

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Let's take a step back to assess why epidural steroids may or may not be a good idea. The rationale behind the procedure comes from the anti-inflammatory effect of steroids on the nerves.

Chronic inflammation in nerves can lead to pain, numbness, and muscle weakness. Nerve injury causes microscopic changes in nerve anatomy, including tissue swelling or edema, an increase in fibrous tissue and, in the worst case, nerve death through something called Wallerian degeneration. In cases like traumatic brain injury or stroke, the nerve damage can be permanent.

There are now about 9 million epidural steroid injections performed annually in the U.S and the number of procedures appears to be growing.

During a standard epidural injection, the doctor may inject into the epidural space a contrast dye using x-ray guidance (fluoroscopy) to make sure the dye is going into the correct location.  Others may use a more blind approach, called the "loss of resistance" technique, with a syringe of air that injects itself into the epidural space as it enters. There is a "pop" when the needle penetrates the epidural space.

After the air or dye is injected and the needle located, a second syringe containing  the steroid is injected. Afterward, the patient is observed for signs of pain relief and complications.

Many studies show that about 50% of patients feel better. If there is no pain relief after one ESI, a second attempt is usually in order. If partial relief is exhibited, a series of three injections in two weeks may be performed.

There is controversy over the rate and frequency of epidurals for pain. Typically, a “cycle” of epidurals is done, but if there is no pain relief after two injections, some doctors recommend that a different treatment be used. Some patients report getting as many as two or three dozen epidurals in a single year.  Critics say that raises the risk of a misplaced needle causing “cumulative trauma” and serious complications such as adhesive arachnoiditis.

If you doctor recommends that you get an epidural steroid injection, here are five things you need to know:

1. Drugs Used: The two most common drugs for ESI are a local anesthetic (lidocaine or bupivacaine) and/or a corticosteroid (betamethasone, dexamethasone, hydrocortisone, methyl-prednisolone, triamcinolone). 

The local anesthetic offers immediate numbing and pain relief. It also verifies whether the injection was done in the right place and gives an idea of how the steroid may act to decrease inflammation. After the anesthetic wears off, the steroid kicks in for an effect that may last varying times, sometimes for a short period and sometimes forever.

Patients and doctors need to know whether there was immediate pain relief from the local anesthetic. The doctor should ask, "Does the pain feel better?" to assess the temporary anesthetic effect.

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If the answer is yes, then the steroid should provide more pain relief. If the answer is no, the steroid is much less likely to have any clinical effect. There is no indication to repeat the procedure if there is no decrease in pain. Doing so would unnecessarily expose a patient to serious complications or death.

2. Injection Sites: The most common injections are into the neck (cervical) and into the lower back (lumbar). Less commonly, epidural injections are placed into the upper back (thoracic) or to the bottom tip of the spine in the sacral area (caudal). The needle can go either straight into the middle of the spine (interlaminar), or enter from the left or right side (transforaminal). 

In general, the closer the injection is placed to the head, the greater the risk of serious complications if the needle accidentally hits a nerve or artery, an air bubble causes an embolism, or if the injection goes into the spinal fluid.

3. Minor complications: Adverse events can occur within minutes or up to 48 hours after an injection. Minor complications are generally not life-threatening and usually go away with little to no treatment.

Some patients get an "epidural headache" when the needle is inserted too far into the dura, causing a leak of cerebrospinal fluid. This is a stressful and painful headache, but it usually completely resolves. Other minor complications include facial flushing, fainting, hypertension (high blood pressure) and increased pain.

4. Serious complications: No one really knows the complication rate of epidural steroid injections, due to under-reporting by doctors and the lack of standard guidelines.

Normally, the steroid will flow into the epidural space above and below where it was injected, but it can also flow into unintended places like the subdural or intrathecal spaces, cranial nerves, brain stem, and lower midbrain.

For example, if the injection accidentally goes into the spinal fluid, the procedure becomes a spinal block, not an epidural block. This may lead to potentially life-threatening complications. If this happens during an injection to the neck, it can spread upward, toward the top of the head and into the brain, leading to serious complications. 

Severe complications from an injection can include arachnoiditis, allergic reactions, stroke, brain edema, cauda equina syndrome, seizures, vasculitis, blindness, and death.

5. Off-Label Use: The FDA places epidural steroids in the category of "off-label" use that falls within the practice of medicine and is not FDA-approved. The FDA requires all glucocorticoid steroid warning labels to state:

The safety and effectiveness of epidural administration of corticosteroids have not been established and corticosteroids are not approved for this use… serious neurologic events, some resulting in death, have been reported with epidural injection of corticosteroids.”

The FDA website also warns patients to seek emergency medical attention if they experience any unusual symptoms, such as loss of vision or vision changes, tingling in the arms or legs, sudden weakness or numbness, dizziness, severe headache or seizures.

If you have concerns regarding the use of epidural steroid injections, talk to your doctor.

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Dr. Margaret Aranda is a Stanford and Keck USC alumni in anesthesiology and critical care. She has dysautonomia and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) after a car accident left her with traumatic brain injuries that changed her path in life to patient advocacy.

Margaret is a board member of the Invisible Disabilities Association. She has authored six books, the most recent is The Rebel Patient: Fight for Your Diagnosis. You can follow Margaret’s expert social media advice on Twitter, Google +, Blogspot, Wordpress. and LinkedIn.

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.

Steroid Injections Provide Little Relief for Back Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Steroid injections provide only short term relief for patients suffering from chronic low back pain, according to a new study funded by the French Ministry of Health that was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Researchers evaluated 135 patients with discopathy – degenerative disc disease -- who were being treated at three different clinics in France. Half the patients were assigned to a control group and the rest received a single glucocorticoid (steroid) injection into their lower back.

A little over half of the patients who received the injection reported positive effects on back pain after one month. But the effect was only temporary and decreased over time, with no differences in back pain intensity after 12 months when compared to the control group.

“Given these findings, the researchers question the efficacy of glucocorticoid injections as a treatment for chronic low back pain,” the American College of Physicians said in a news release.

The French study adds to a growing body of evidence questioning the effectiveness and safety of steroid injections into the spinal area.

A 2015 report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) found little evidence that epidural steroid injections were effective in treating low back pain. Researchers said the injections often provide immediate improvements in pain and function, “but benefits were small and not sustained, and there was no effect on long-term risk of surgery.”

A 2014 study by the AHRQ also found that epidural injections did little to relieve pain in patients with spinal stenosis.  

Epidural injections, which have long been used to relieve pain during childbirth, are increasingly being used as an alternative to opioids in treating back pain. The shots have become a common and sometimes lucrative procedure at many pain management clinics, where costs vary from as little as $445 to $2,000 per injection.

The Food and Drug Administration has never approved the use of steroids to treat back pain, but several million epidural steroid injections are still performed “off label” in the U.S. annually.

The American College of Physicians (ACP) recently released new guidelines saying there was little evidence that steroid injections are effective as a treatment for low back pain.

“Moderate-quality evidence showed no differences in pain between systemic corticosteroids and placebo and no to small effect on function in patients with radicular low back pain,” the ACP said.

Lower back pain is the world's leading cause of disability. Over 80 percent of adults have low back pain at some point in their lives.

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."

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.

DR. LAXMAIAH MANCHIKANTI

DR. LAXMAIAH MANCHIKANTI

“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.”