Corticosteroids are potent drugs used to reduce inflammation in the body's tissues.
They are different from anabolic steroids. Anabolic steroids are illegally used by
some athletes to increase muscle tone.
Corticosteroids can come in several forms: pills, liquids, creams, ointments, medicines
sprayed into the nose, and injectable medicines.
Corticosteroid injections can treat a variety of skeletal, muscular, and spinal conditions.
Some of these injections can be done by your healthcare provider during a routine
clinic visit. Others need a referral to a pain or other specialist.
Here are some of their most common uses:
Osteoarthritis. People with osteoarthritis often develop pain and inflammation in
their joints. An injection of corticosteroids into the affected joint can give temporary
pain relief for several weeks or months. After the treatment, your healthcare provider
may recommend avoiding strenuous activity for at least 24 hours for the best results.
Low back pain. Lower back pain from ruptured disks, spinal stenosis, and some other
conditions may be treated with injectable corticosteroids. Lumbar radiculopathy is
pain in the buttocks, hips, or legs that comes from a pinched nerve in the lower back.
This type of pain can often be treated with corticosteroid injections near the pinched
nerve. Sometimes other drugs like local anesthetics are given with the corticosteroid.
Cervical radiculopathy. This is neck pain that radiates to the shoulder, arm, or hands.
It happens when the vertebrae in the spine move closer together or a disc bulges or
ruptures, pinching a nerve in the neck. Injecting corticosteroids near the pinched
nerve may reduce swelling and relieve pain. This gives the nerve some time to heal.
Bursitis and tendonitis. Bursitis is a common condition that happens when the fluid
sac that normally cushions spaces between bones, muscles, and skin becomes inflamed
and painful. Tendonitis is a common condition in which the tendons around muscles
and bones become inflamed. The areas that are commonly affected are the elbow, knee,
shoulder, wrist, hand, and hip. Injected corticosteroids can reduce the inflammation.
But you must be careful because repeated steroid use can cause the tendon to weaken
or even rupture.
Carpal tunnel syndrome. This condition happens when a nerve in the wrist becomes compressed
or pinched, causing pain, numbness, tingling, and possibly weakness in the hand. Injecting
a corticosteroid into the wrist can give immediate, though temporary, relief. An anesthetic
like lidocaine may also be given with the steroid.
Cautions about corticosteroids
Corticosteroids can have a number of side effects, including high blood sugar levels.
For this reason, people with diabetes are advised to tell their healthcare providers
about their condition before taking any steroid medicines.
Using injectable corticosteroids for a long time is not suggested because of additional
side effects. These include osteoporosis, cataracts, delayed growth, stomach ulcers,
skin atrophy and depigmentation, mood disorders, and high blood pressure. You may
have short-term side effects like local pain or infection at the injection site. Your
healthcare provider will usually limit your total number of corticosteroid injections
to 3 to 4 a year.
If you are considering taking corticosteroids to treat a muscular or skeletal condition,
be sure to talk with your healthcare provider about all the benefits and risks.