Epidural injections of steroids have often been the treatment of choice for patients with a pinched nerve in the back whose symptoms did not respond to simple exercise, physical therapy, or other more conservative approaches. Steroid injections have also been offered to patients with spinal stenosis whose back pain was unrelieved by less invasive therapy. But the results of a new research study hint that injections of steroids for back pain may be less beneficial than believed. The study is small, but it still bears consideration, as the findings are statistically valid and underscore why healing is as much an art as a science.
The study of the efficacy of steroid injections for back pain examined more than 270 patients, aged 53 to 75 years old, culled from the ranks of a larger study of individuals with spinal health problems. The research subjects were followed for four years. Sixty-nine of these patients had epidural injections and 207 did not, but otherwise the patients’ symptoms were primarily the same in terms of severity, as measured by well-established scales used to measure pain in the leg and lower back. Using these scales, researchers found less improvement among those who had epidural injections than among patients who did not have injections.
Several caveats must be offered when considering the results of this research. First, as the authors readily acknowledge, factors that the researchers didn’t account for and couldn’t control may have affected or skewed the results. Nonetheless, we are seeing fresh thinking and new techniques improving outcomes for many spinal patients. For example, patients who elected to have spinal decompression surgery to relieve symptoms of pinched nerves typically opted for a spinal fusion back surgery in tandem, in order to stabilize the spine. Today, a growing number are opting for TOPSTM – the Total Posterior Solution – System, instead of spinal fusion. The TOPS system, unlike spinal fusion, preserves complete independent motion of the individual vertebrae. This is one more way that fresh thinking, and new technologies and procedures are transforming the care and treatment of back problems.