Why Do Doctors Keep Pushing Invasive Procedures on Me?

By Mike Emelio, Guest Columnist 

I'm not a cynical person by nature, but I'm seeing a very clear pattern with interventional pain management doctors. Why is it that every doctor I've seen who is certified in interventional pain medicine (at least 8 of them already) demonize opioid medication and insist on pushing their non-FDA approved injections, radiofrequency ablations, pain pumps and spinal cord stimulators? 

This approach is even more absurd when you consider the fact that invasive procedures tend to have low rates of efficacy and are known to create scar tissue and nerve damage, both of which can cause more pain.  

As if this weren't ridiculous enough, in spite of explaining to these doctors how epidural steroid injections not only didn't work for me, but robbed me of my life by tripling my pain and making my condition much worse (see “Disabled by the War on Opioids”), every single one of the doctors I've seen still tries to push more of those injections on me.  

My head spins every time I hear them try to sell me on more injections. Are they deaf, insane, just trying to make their wallets fatter, or all three?

On what planet does it make sense to do more of what made a thing worse

Ever since my life was ruined by those injections 5 years ago, I've been desperately trying to find a doctor who truly cares about my well-being and wants to help me. My search has been fruitless so far.  

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Sadly, it just keeps getting worse. The latest doctor I started seeing keeps pushing a pain pump on me. That is as absurd as it gets. Multiple doctors have told me that the reason those injections made my back pain worse is because they caused adhesive arachnoiditis or nerve damage – both of which can be made worse with invasive procedures.  

Why would any doctor push a pain pump on me? I could understand it for a patient with a history of drug abuse, but that is not the case with me. Not only do I have zero history of drug or alcohol abuse, but I have taken my pain meds responsibly for many years. Why should I submit to being put under anesthesia, cut open and have a device implanted in me, all which can have serious complications, when I can get the same medication in a pill that I took responsibly for many years? 

All of the surgeons say that my best option for improved quality of life is pain medication and staying as active and mobile as possible. Yet every interventional pain management doctor ignores their advice and pushes for injections, spinal cord stimulators or pain pumps. Why would they do that?  

It's simple.  According to my Medicare statements, a doctor makes about $75 per visit to write and maintain prescription medications. But with the injections, it's $1,000 and up!

Many times I've personally seen doctors perform unnecessary tests that pay them a lot of money and only for that reason. This is not just my opinion, as other doctors I've seen have confirmed this. Not all doctors are like this and I wouldn't even venture to say most, but the fact is there are plenty of them out there. 

I'm not saying any of this to bash doctors. I'm sharing this information in hopes that people take the time to get educated, be vigilant and be their own advocate when it comes to their healthcare. Doctors are only human. They're just as susceptible to flaws as anyone else. I can't impress enough on all of you to look out for yourselves and get second, third, fourth and even fifth opinions if needed.

If you think that sounds excessive, just think about what happened to me. They took away what was working for me and used a non-FDA approved procedure on me that wasn't even designed for what they were using it for. The end result was that it crippled me, robbed me of my ability to work, forced me into a life of poverty and disability, and took away my freedom, my dignity and my ability to properly care for myself. 

Simply put... It has devastated my life.

I don't post any this for sympathy. I am only trying to educate and inform people about what can happen if they put too much faith in doctors without doing some research. What happened to me is a prime example of just how essential it is that we patients be as proactive as possible, be our own advocates and protect ourselves. 

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Michael Emelio lives in Florida.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org.

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.

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.

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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. 

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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.

Disabled by the War on Opioids

By Michael Emelio, Guest Columnist

I am 53 years old and have severe disc degeneration spread throughout my spine and scoliosis in my lower back. As if that weren't enough, I've also been diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

I have been on opioid medication since 2001.  For over a decade the meds helped reduce the pain enough so that I could still work 40 hours a week, including some heavy lifting. But in 2013 the DEA shutdown the doctor I had been with for over 12 years, forcing me to find a new pain management doctor.

The new doctor not only refused to continue the meds that were working for me, but immediately cut my opioids by over 90% without tapering me down at all. My pain increased so much that I couldn't return to work, even for light duty.

When I asked the doctor why he wouldn't continue the prescriptions my previous doctor was giving me, he said and I quote, “Because of the crackdown on pain meds you're not going to find a doctor in this state will give you more than what I'm giving you now." 

Mind you, this was back in 2014, and was still less than the maximum 90mg morphine equivalent dose that the CDC started recommending in 2016. 

Little did I know that was only the beginning of my nightmare. Since back surgery wasn't an option, the doctor told me my only choice was to have epidural steroid injections.

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I did some research and had legitimate reservations about the injections, but without being offered any other options and not wanting to be labeled a drug seeker, I reluctantly agreed. I couldn't afford to be out of work much longer.

The injections were administered a month apart. The first series did nothing for my pain and the second one actually increased the pain by over three-fold. This resulted in me becoming completely bedridden 24 hours a day and struggling to complete the most basic daily life functions. I'm not talking about doing laundry and cleaning house. I'm talking about just feeding myself.

This left me unable to do any kind of work whatsoever, let alone return to my regular job of over 7 years, where I was working towards retirement. When I asked the doctor what was I supposed to do now, his response was, “Have you considered applying for disability?"

Unless you've been here, you cannot fathom the level of shock and horror that I felt at that moment, yet alone the level of injustice and outrage. A word that comes to mind is appalled, but that doesn't even begin to describe it. I went from being an able-bodied worker to disabled and bedridden 24 hours a day.  And for no other reason than the War on Opioids!

To be perfectly clear, I didn't take illegal drugs and I never abused, gave away or sold my prescriptions. I passed all my drug tests, never had a record of drug problems, or even a DUI. I didn't even drink alcohol. I did NOTHING to give them any reason whatsoever to take my medications away.

My current doctor is currently weaning me off the last of my opioids, stripping me of the last tiny bit of medication that have any effect on my pain. What little quality of life I have left is about to be taken away completely.

The only thing I can do now is pray that I am able to hold on and not become another suicide statistic after being forced to live in agony day-in and day-out. All because of the barbarically handled, totally blind, and uncompassionate War on Opioids.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against fighting drug abuse and addiction, I'm just against the way it's being fought. Taking these medications away from people who have proven they need and use them responsibly will fail to have any impact whatsoever on the addicts who are abusing them.  It only serves to punish the honest and innocent. Why should I be punished and forced to live a life of pain, misery and indignity when I have done nothing wrong?

With the help of opioids, I was still very active and happy, enjoying things like riding motorcycles, jet skiing, and even paragliding. Although recently becoming single, I had no reason not to hope for eventually finding the right woman and living happily ever after.

But I've been robbed of all of that now. I am bedridden and struggling to survive on nothing more than disability income. My pain has tripled thanks to the unnecessary and unwanted steroid injections, and for no other reason than the fear instilled in my doctor by the DEA and CDC.

And it's still not over. The only thing my doctor is offering now is more of the very same injections that put me here in the first place and robbed me of my life.

What keeps me fighting is the sheer anger and outrage that I have for the injustice of it all. If you are a doctor, DEA agent, politician, or anybody else who is not a chronic pain patient – then take a minute to realize that you are only one car accident, one slip, or one fall away from this happening to you.

STOP THIS MADNESS!

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Michael Emelio lives in Florida.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org.

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.

What Back Pain Sufferers Should Know

By Doug Beall, MD, Guest Columnist

Allow me to describe a common patient referred to my office. Their back pain has been around long enough to be chronic and anti-inflammatory pills no longer dilute the pain.  Good days are when the patient is able to leave the house and painfully make it through eight hours at work; bad days are when the only endurable position is to lay flat at home all day.

Learning to live with the pain is no longer an option, so his physician refers him to my office. Let's pause the story here.

This sequence has been the experience of countless patients suffering from back pain. After months — sometimes years — of what feels like a 10 on the pain scale, these patients are willing to do almost anything to make the pain go away.

By the time they come to the doctor, most have done their research and have already written their own prescription, concluding that invasive surgeries and painkillers are the only options strong enough to alleviate their pain. But how did we get to the point where the all-out attack option seems like the only option?

As a doctor who specializes in treating patients for back pain, here’s what I wish more patients suffering from chronic pain knew.

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When it comes to strong painkillers and increasingly invasive surgeries, bigger is not better. While surgery is the right option for some, the culture of pain management in the United States has produced the myth that the more invasive and aggressive the technique, the more effective it is. This over-reliance on aggressive techniques, especially opioids and invasive surgeries, puts last resorts at the front of the line while ignoring a range of safer and frequently more effective treatments — injections, vertebral augmentation, stem cell therapy or radiofrequency ablation, to name a few.

Simply put, the more aggressive and invasive techniques have not demonstrated that they produce better results. People aren’t automobiles. Our bodies can’t be put back together quickly or without some downside from surgery. While the more invasive repair may be better for your car, when it comes to people, the less invasive the technique, the better the patient recovery will be.

The primary consequence of the bigger is better mentally has produced a dangerous dependence on opioids for treating non-cancer pain and post-surgical pain. Opioids may be necessary for a relatively comfortable recovery after surgery, but normally not for more than four to six weeks. Recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) estimates that six percent of patients prescribed opioids after surgery become persistent opioid users. Chronic opioid use has ruined countless lives, so any treatment relying on opioids should only be considered a last resort.

Furthermore, it’s not clear that invasive surgeries are effective for patients. As an example, one of the most common pain management procedures is lumbar spinal fusion surgery, which is often used to treat chronic lower back pain. A new study from the medical journal Spine indicates 20 percent of patients undergo another operation within four years of an initial spinal fusion. Patients can only hope they’re not the unlucky one out of five sitting in the doctor’s waiting room who will be back for a second operation.

Pain sufferers should know that the vast majority of their chronic pain could be helped with simple, less invasive procedures without having to make an incision. When patients are referred to my office, I start with the least invasive options before moving on to surgery and more definitive techniques.

Instead of having patients go under the knife and prescribing them opioids, many of my patients suffering from chronic lower back pain have experienced tremendous results with radiofrequency ablation, which uses radiofrequency energy to deactivate a nerve that transmits pain from a patient’s lumbar disc.  This procedure can be done with a needle during an outpatient visit, and it often provides instant relief that can last for years.

Other procedures include epidural steroid injections (ESIs) and vertebral augmentation surgery. Both are minimally invasive options that help relieve acute and chronic pain.

Epidural injections relieve a variety of conditions, including sciatica, herniated discs and spinal stenosis. During an ESI, a surgeon or interventional pain physician injects a local anesthetic and a steroid into the epidural space, providing swift pain relief for the region. While this relief only lasts for a few weeks or months, it provides patients with enough time to continue working on their physical therapy and for the underlying pathology to heal.

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Vertebral augmentation is an injection of a cementing agent into a vertebra in order to stabilize a vertical compression fracture (VCF). VCFs can result in severe deformity and extreme pain, and vertebral augmentation can help fix this injury with minimal complication or risk.

For patients suffering the disabling effects of chronic back pain, it’s important to know there are alternatives to opioids and invasive surgeries; not only radiofrequency ablation, but a whole range of minimally-invasive techniques. In the end, surgery may be necessary — but for many, these other options will prove to be not only safer, but also more effective.

(Editor’s note: For another view on ESI’s and their risks, see Dr. Margaret Aranda’s column, “5 Things to Know About Epidural Steroid Injections.”)

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Dr. Doug Beall is a Fellow of Interventional Pain Practice, a Diplomate of the American Academy of Pain Management and is the Chief of Services at Clinical Radiology of Oklahoma, specializing in interventional musculoskeletal care.

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.

A Bad Bill That Won't Fight Opioid Addiction

(Editor’s note: Last month, PNN reported on the “Post-Surgical Injections as an Opioid Alternative Act,” one of dozens of bills Congress is considering to combat the opioid crisis. HR 5804 would raise Medicare’s reimbursement rate for epidurals and other spinal injections used to treat post-surgical pain. The bill – which was lobbied for by doctors who perform the procedures – has drawn little public scrutiny and was rushed through a congressional committee after one brief hearing.)

By Denise Molohon, Guest Columnist

Raising the reimbursement rate for post-surgical spinal injections would dramatically increase healthcare costs and disability rates. This is based on historical research and medical evidence.

A harmful procedure should never be considered a “standard of care” by the medical profession. Yet that is what has happened with epidural steroid injections (ESIs) and Congress is going along with it under the guise of preventing opioid addiction.

“In the United States, more than ten million epidural steroid injections are delivered each year, a number that makes them the bread and butter of interventional pain management practices,” wrote Cathryn Jakobson Ramin, author of Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry and Getting on the Road to Recovery.” 

The National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia warned in 1994 that the risk of a dural puncture of the spinal cord during an injection was at least 5 percent. It also cautioned that “particular care must be taken if attempting an epidural injection in patients previously treated by spinal surgery.”

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In such cases, an epidural steroid injection (ESI) carries a very high risk of direct entry into the subarachnoid space, which can have catastrophic consequences to a patient, including the development of Adhesive Arachnoiditis, a chronic, painful and disabling inflammation of spinal nerves. I live with that condition, along with a growing number of other patients.

“The incidence of arachnoiditis has risen about 400% in the past decade,” says Forest Tennant, MD, Editor Emeritus of Practical Pain Management.

Between 2000 and 2011, there was a staggering 665% increase in the rate of lumbar and sacral epidural injections among Medicare beneficiaries. The data also show that there were enormous increases in spinal injections performed by physical medicine and rehabilitation specialists.

“We are doing too many of these, and many of those don’t meet the proper criteria,” Dr. Laxmaiah Manchikanti told The New York Times in 2012.  Manchikanti runs a pain clinic in Paducah, KY and is chairman of the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians – which lobbied for HR 5804 and gave campaign contributions to its sponsors. He told The Times about 20 percent of doctors who perform ESIs are not adequately trained.

The growing use of spinal injections has not resulted in better care. Dr. Richard Deyo, a professor of family medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, told the The Times that “people with back pain are reporting more functional limitations and work limitation, rather than less.”

HR 5804 is more bad policy piling on top of an already failed campaign of opioid legislation -- much of it based on misinformation provided by the CDC -- that will perpetuate the tsunami of needless pain and overdose deaths. 

It needs to stop. Today. 

When profit is one of the major motivating factors of those seeking new legislation, those creating the legislation and those lobbying for it need to be questioned. Profitability should never play a factor in any treatment plan. However, it now seems to dominate the American healthcare system from diagnosis to testing to medication. 

This needs to change.

Medicine needs to be removed from the hands of lobbyists, PAC’s, and politicians and put back into the hands of the personal physician and his or her patient. It should be as individualized and unique as the medical needs of each patient. 

It truly is that simple. 

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Denise Molohon was disabled with Adhesive Arachnoiditis after multiple spinal surgeries.

Denise is a patient advocate for ASAP, the Arachnoiditis Society for Awareness & Prevention. She and her family live in Indiana.

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.

Study Finds Many Treatments for Back Pain Ineffective

By Pat Anson, Editor

Lower back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability, affecting about 540 million people at any given time. With so many people suffering, you'd think there would be a consensus on the best way to treat or at least manage low back pain.

And you'd be wrong.

In a series of reviews appearing in The Lancet medical journal, an international team of researchers found that low back pain is usually treated with bad advice, inappropriate tests, risky surgeries and painkillers -- often against treatment guidelines.

“The majority of cases of low back pain respond to simple physical and psychological therapies that keep people active and enable them to stay at work,” says lead author Professor Rachelle Buchbinder of Monash University in Australia. “Often, however, it is more aggressive treatments of dubious benefit that are promoted and reimbursed.”

Buchbinder and her colleagues say low back pain is best managed in primary care, with the first line of treatment being education and advice to exercise, stay active and continue to work. Instead, a high number of low back pain patients are treated in emergency rooms, encouraged to rest and stop work, referred for scans or surgery, and prescribed painkillers.

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“In many countries, painkillers that have limited positive effect are routinely prescribed for low back pain, with very little emphasis on interventions that are evidence based such as exercises," adds co-author Professor Nadine Foster of Keele University in the UK.

"As lower-income countries respond to this rapidly rising cause of disability, it is critical that they avoid the waste that these misguided practices entail."

Low back pain mostly affects adults of working age in lower socioeconomic groups. People with physically demanding jobs, physical and mental comorbidities, smokers, and obese individuals are at greatest risk of reporting low back pain. 

Most people with new episodes of low back pain recover quickly, but recurrences are common. It’s also important to rule out more serious causes of back pain, such as cancer, arthritis and spinal fractures. In a small proportion of people, low back pain can become chronic and disabling.

The Lancet authors say patients should avoid harmful and useless treatments, and doctors need to address widespread misconceptions about their effectiveness. For example, there is limited evidence to support the use of opioids for low back pain, and epidural steroid injections and acetaminophen (paracetamol) are not recommended at all.

The authors recommend counseling, exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy as first-line treatments for short-term low back pain, followed by spinal manipulation, massage, acupuncture, meditation and yoga as second line treatments.

“Millions of people across the world are getting the wrong care for low back pain. Protection of the public from unproven or harmful approaches to managing low back pain requires that governments and health-care leaders tackle entrenched and counterproductive reimbursement strategies, vested interests, and financial and professional incentives that maintain the status quo,” said co-author Professor Jan Hartvigsen of University of Southern Denmark.

“Funders should pay only for high-value care, stop funding ineffective or harmful tests and treatments, and importantly intensify research into prevention, better tests and better treatments.”

The findings in The Lancet series are similar to those reported in other medical journals. A 2016 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that regular exercise and education reduce the risk of developing lower back pain by as much as 45 percent.

Another study in JAMA found that opioid medication provides only modest short-term relief for low back pain. Previous studies published in the British Medical Journal and The Lancet also found little evidence that acetaminophen was effective in treating low back pain.

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.