Steroids are used to fight inflammation and speed healing. For injuries, this treatment may be a good idea, but for most back pain scenarios, I always ask, where is the inflammation? As Dr. Sarno has pointed out time and time again, there is rarely evidence of any inflammatory process in the majority of chronic pain complaints. Even in cases where inflammation exists, steroids are not a very good option, since they are often completely ineffectual or only provide short term benefits, sometimes only due to the placebo effect.
Epidural injections are often used to treat radicular pain, also called sciatica , which is pain that radiates from the site of a pinched nerve in the low back to the area of the body aligned with that nerve, such as the back of the leg or into the foot. Inflammatory chemicals (. substance P, PLA2, arachidonic acid, TNF-α, IL-1, and prostaglandin E2) and immunologic mediators can generate pain and are associated with common back problems such as lumbar disc herniation or facet joint arthritis . These conditions, as well as many others, provoke inflammation that in turn can cause significant nerve root irritation and swelling.
A small and very rare risk is that the injected joint becomes infected (1 in 15,000). Patients who experience a very painful, red, or swollen joint after injection should seek medical attention immediately. Thankfully, the most common cause of these symptoms is not a concerning infection but a reaction to the injected steroid (called steroid flare ) that occurs in 2-5% of patients. A steroid flare usually begins 6-12 hours after the injection and can last for 2-3 days. Regardless of the cause, it is important for patients with symptoms of infection to see a doctor because infections require immediate treatment.