Assessing the safety of steroid injections doesn’t come down to a simple yes or no statement. As with many medical treatments, the benefits of steroid injection therapy must be weighed against the potential complications. When used to address chronic pain stemming from musculoskeletal causes, corticosteroid injections offer strong benefits that offset many of the risks, but this is tempered by the effects of long-term use.
Common uses for steroid injections
Corticosteroid injections — also called cortisone shots — are often used for their ability to reduce inflammation quickly. Typically used to treat the pain accompanying rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, steroid injections may also be helpful if you have:
- Plantar fasciitis
- Other forms of arthritis such as psoriatic and reactive arthritis
The most common locations for steroid injections are typically shoulders, lower spine, and knees. As well as musculoskeletal inflammation, steroid injections can also treat some allergic reactions.
Local versus systemic
Steroid injection therapy is a form of local treatment, meaning the injection is made at the site of the pain, and the medication largely stays near the point of injection. Taking oral corticosteroids is systemic, meaning that the medication can reach virtually anywhere in your body.
Steroids can affect your adrenal and immune system functions when used systemically. Since these effects may not be desired when treating chronic pain, injections are a safer way to deliver steroids.
However, even injected locally, steroids can move through your body through diffusion and muscle movement. You’ll be monitored for systemic effects, particularly the first time you have a steroid injection, to assure that these effects don’t overshadow the anti-inflammatory benefits.
Steroid injection guidelines for use
While steroids can produce dramatic pain relief that lasts for weeks or more, repeated injections can take a toll on joint tissue, particularly cartilage. General guidelines for corticosteroid injections advise injections at least six weeks apart, with a maximum of four injections per year.
Potential complications from steroid injections
You may respond differently than other people to steroid injections. Treatments for chronic pain often require a period of discovery for the most effective methods for you. While steroid injections have risk factors, it doesn’t mean that everyone receiving injections will develop these complications.
However, being aware of these side effects helps the process of developing an effective treatment plan, with or without steroid injections.
Any therapy using needles has a low risk of introducing infection. However, since this includes blood samples, allergy shots, immunizations, and similar therapies, you’ll know that this risk is quite low. Besides infection, complications of steroid injections can include:
- Effects on bone tissue, such as osteoporosis or osteonecrosis
- Weakening or rupture of tendons near the injection site
- Changes to the skin at the injection site, including thinning or color changes
- Damage to local nerves
- Temporary increase of inflammation or pain immediately after an injection
- Temporary increase in blood glucose levels
Choosing steroid injections
The severity of your chronic pain condition usually influences the decision to use steroid injections. Since there’s a strong chance that you’ll experience pain relief that may otherwise require opioid drug use or surgery, the balance of risks swings in favor of steroids.
Steroid injection therapy is safe and effective when recommended by experienced caregivers like Dr. Smith. He will discuss the potential impact of this treatment in relation to your complete pain management program. Call or click today to request a personal consultation to learn more.