Debunking the Myth: Cortisone Injections for Back Pain


While the idea of an injection in the spine is not appealing, the shot is not as painful as it sounds. Cortisone is often administered with a numbing medicine, like Carbocaine or Lidocaine. For women who have had epidurals in the delivery room, a cortisone injection is a piece of cake.

cortisone injections for back pain

Why cortisone shots once had a bad rap

If the term “cortisone shot” carries a negative connotation in your mind, you’re not alone. Cortisone injections, also known as epidural steroid injections (ESIs) were first administered to people suffering from sciatica and lower back pain in 1952. At the time, it was the quickest way to combat back pain temporarily without surgery.

Problems with cortisone shots were not uncommon. Some of the issues were due to the amount of cortisone administered. Other issues arose based on the injection being given in the wrong spot or the individual’s health not being fully assessed.

Even today there are people who view cortisone injections for back pain to be controversial. Some patients experience what is referred to as a “cortisone flare” after getting an injection. This flare is often painful – sometimes even more so than the back pain that is being treated. However, that flare is temporary. The injection is still effective in providing pain relief.

cortisone injections for back pain

Cortisone injections can also weaken tendons, which is another point of controversy surrounding the treatment. For this reason, injections can never be made directly into the tendons to avoid the risk of patients developing tendinosis or tendinopathy.

Remember: these are not anabolic steroids like what weight lifters or athletes use to bulk up. Steroids are used differently in medical practice.

It’s a short-term fix

While steroid shots may give you temporary relief from back pain, remember that:

  • They aren’t a cure-all for your back condition
  • If you’re struggling with pain that radiates down your leg, a cortisone shot could give you the relief you need to start physical therapy
  • For others, your chronic back condition may improve while you’re pain-free from the cortisone
  • Cortisone is only treating your symptoms, not the cause

“You would do less invasive, less aggressive things first,” says Dr. Robert Shmerling, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Effective relief for back pain

Today’s medical standards rely on cortisone injections to help people who live with chronic back pain. Cortisone injections for back pain may provide you with pain relief long enough so that your back injury can heal. This can allow you to move forward with other treatments such as an exercise program or physical therapy to regain movement and strength.

cortisone injections for back pain

The verdict on cortisone shots

Trying a cortisone injection to temporarily alleviate your back pain is your personal decision. Living with chronic pain is miserable. If you need relief, consider this a safe solution to try. Talk to your trusted medical professional about your interest in this treatment.

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