Corticosteroid injections can help reduce the symptoms of inflammatory conditions in various parts of the body. Understanding how corticosteroid injections work, the uses and the potential side effects can help patients decide if it’s the right treatment for them.
Corticosteroids are drugs that reduce inflammation. Doctors sometimes prescribe corticosteroid injections to treat joint pain, and the treatment can be performed during an outpatient appointment. The injections often contain a local anesthetic to prevent pain following the procedure.
Corticosteroid injections don’t treat the root causes of joint pain. Instead, they work by mimicking the action of cortisol, a hormone produced naturally by the adrenal glands. Like cortisol, corticosteroid injections and drugs reduce inflammation to provide pain relief.
During the procedure, doctors insert a needle into the painful area and administer the corticosteroid medication using a syringe. The injection may be administered straight into the joint or into the surrounding muscle or soft tissues. Sometimes, the doctor will need to use a fine needle to drain the affected area first if there is a buildup of fluid.
Sometimes, doctors apply a topical local anesthetic to the injection site before the procedure to make the treatment more comfortable. They may also use imaging equipment such as an ultrasound scanner to help them direct the injection into the correct area.
Patients often report pressure during a corticosteroid injection, but it shouldn’t be excessively painful. You should tell your doctor if you’re in a lot of pain or experience discomfort during the procedure.
You experience chronic joint pain or inflammation and other treatment methods haven’t helped.
You experience systemic or widespread inflammation due to an autoimmune disorder.
You are recovering from bone fractures which have not yet healed.
You have an ongoing infection at the site of your pain which an injection may spread.
Corticosteroid injections are quick to administer, but patients may be asked to stay in the clinic for around 15 minutes after the procedure in case of an adverse reaction. Corticosteroid injections usually begin to relieve pain within a week or so. The effects can last for several months.
Corticosteroid injections are used to treat the pain and inflammation caused by joint conditions — often when more conservative treatment options such as rest and physical therapy haven’t provided adequate relief. Corticosteroid injections are often used to treat various forms of arthritis, but they may also be helpful for people with conditions such as gout, bursitis, back pain or tendinitis.
Doctors often recommend corticosteroid injections for orthopedic patients as an interim pain relief measure while working with the patient to treat the underlying condition.
Corticosteroid injections are sometimes used to treat more widespread inflammation in the body. For example, they’re sometimes prescribed as part of a protocol to treat certain cancers or autoimmune conditions. In these situations, doctors may administer the medication intravenously into the bloodstream.
Doctors usually recommend resting the affected area for a few days after having a corticosteroid injection. Patients should avoid activities that put stress on the joint, such as lifting or sports, and sit down as much as possible if they had a corticosteroid injection in their knee or ankle joint.
The injection site may feel sore after a corticosteroid injection. Icing the affected area can help relieve pain, but patients should avoid heat pads. It’s important to avoid submerging the injection site in water, so patients should wait two days to have a bath, use a hot tub or go swimming. It’s fine to take a shower straight away.
There is a small risk of developing an infection after a corticosteroid injection. Patients should contact their doctor if they notice increased swelling, redness or pain that doesn’t improve after a few days.
It’s important to ask a doctor which medications are safe to take before having a corticosteroid injection. Blood thinners and certain supplements can increase the chance of bleeding, so doctors sometimes recommend stopping taking medication in the days leading up to the procedure. Patients should also inform their doctor if they have a fever before their corticosteroid injection, as the treatment isn’t suitable for people with an infection.
It’s best to avoid having a corticosteroid injection around the same time as some vaccinations because this treatment can temporarily affect how the immune system functions. If you’re due to have a vaccination before or after your scheduled procedure, speak to your doctor to decide the best time to have your corticosteroid injection.
Corticosteroid injections can sometimes cause the skin on the face and chest to feel warm and appear flushed. This isn’t a cause for concern and should pass relatively quickly. Patients may also find that their joint pain becomes temporarily worse in the days following the procedure. Increased pain is normal after a corticosteroid injection and isn’t anything to worry about unless it persists for more than two days.
More serious potential side effects include bone damage or thinning, infection, tendon damage and cartilage damage. The medication can cause temporary elevated blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. Some patients may find that their skin becomes thinner or lighter around the injection site, especially if they received a higher dosage.
The risk of side effects increases at higher doses or with frequent treatment. Therefore, doctors usually limit the use of corticosteroid injections to between three and four shots a year and recommend waiting at least six weeks between injections to minimize the chances of adverse effects.
One of the advantages of corticosteroid injections as an anti-inflammatory treatment is that they are far less likely to cause significant side effects than taking steroid tablets, provided they are used at the correct dosage and frequency. This is because a lower steroid dose is required when it is injected locally to achieve similar relief.