Last month, the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning on the safety of epidural steroid injections for back and neck pain. Epidural steroid injections, they said, “may result in rare but serious adverse events, including loss of vision, stroke, paralysis, and death.” They advised providers who perform epidural steroid injections and their patients to discuss these risks prior to making the decision to undergo the procedure.
When used for back or neck pain, epidural steroid injections deliver steroid into the epidural space of the spine. The steroid has anti-inflammatory properties. The goal is to reduce inflammation around the nerves of the spine and thereby produce a temporary reduction in pain.
The FDA states that this warning is unrelated to the issue in 2012 when a number of patients became ill and even died because they had been injected with steroid that had been contaminated in the manufacturing process.
Timely nature of the FDA warning
This warning is important because epidural steroid injections are an increasingly common procedure for chronic back or neck pain. Their widespread use has occurred over the last twenty to twenty-five years. From 1994-2001, their use increased by 271% in the US (Friedly, Chan, & Deyo, 2007). From 2000-2008, their use increased another 186% (Manchikanti, L., et al., 2013).
Epidural steroid injections are not FDA-approved for back or neck pain
This widespread use of epidural steroid injections is controversial. Research shows that on average epidural steroid injections are ineffective for chronic back and neck pain (see, e.g., Bickett, et al., 2013, Staal, et al., 2008) or for radicular pain, such as sciatica (Iverson, 2011). At best, in some clinical trials, epidural steroid injections have been shown to provide statistically significant improvements in the leg pain of sciatica, but the improvements are so small that from the real world perspective of a patient the improvements are irrelevant (Carette, et al., 1997; Quraishi, 2012). No published studies show that epidural steroid injections reduce disability related to back or neck pain.
Proponents of the procedure often argue that that the use of epidural steroid injections can reduce the need for spine surgery. However, empirical research does not support this argument (Carette, et al., 1997).
Due to the lack of evidence for the effectiveness of epidural steroid injections, a number of pain experts question their widespread use (Deyo, 2009; Schofferman, 2006; Taylor, 2011).
The FDA, in their warning, explicitly emphasizes this lack of evidence for the effectiveness of epidural steroid injections. They state that the use of epidural steroid injections for the treatment of back or neck pain is not an FDA-approved procedure because the procedure has not been shown to be effective.
Bickett, M. C., Gupta, A., Brown, C. H., & Cohen, S. P. (2013). Epidural injections for spinal pain: A systematic review and meta-analysis evaluating the “control” injections in randomized controlled trials. Anesthesiology, 119(4), 907-931. doi: 10.1097/ALN.0b013e31829c2ddd
Carette, S., Leclaire, R., Marcoux, S., Morin, F., Blaise, G. A., St. Pierre, A., Truchon, R., Parent, F., Levesque, J., Bergeron, V., Montminy, P., & Blanchette, C. (1997). Epidural corticosteroid injections for sciatica for herniated nucleus pulposus. New England Journal of Medicine, 336, 1634-1640. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199706053362303
Deyo, R. A., Mirza, S. K., Turner, J. A., & Martin, B. I. (2009). Overtreating back pain: Time to back off? Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 22(1), 62-68. doi: 10.3122/jabfm.2009.01.080102
Friedly, J., Chan, L., & Deyo, R. (2007). Increases in lumbosacral injections in the Medicare population: 1994-2001. Spine, 32, 1754-1760.
Iverson, T., Solberg, T. K., Romner, B., Wilsgaard, T., Twisk, J., Anke, A., Nygaard, O., Hasvold, T., & Ingebrigtsen, T. (2011). Effect of caudal epidural steroid or saline injection in chronic lumbar radiculopathy: Multicentre, blinded, randomized controlled trial. BMJ, 343, d5278. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d5278
Manchikanti, Pampati, V., Falco, F., & Hirsch, J. A. (2013). Growth of spinal interventional pain management techniques: Analysis of utilization trends and Medicare expenditures 2000 to 2008. Spine, 38(2), 157-168. doi: 1097/BRS.0b013e318267f463
Quraishi, N. A. (2012). Transforaminal injection of corticosteroids for lumbar radiculopathy: Systematic review and meta-analysis. European Spine Journal, 21(2), 214-219. doi: 10.1007/s00586-011-2008-y
Schofferman, J. (2006). Interventional pain medicine: Financial success and ethical practice: An oxymoron? Pain Medicine, 7, 5, 457-460.
Staal, J. B., de Bie, R., de Vet, H. C., Hildebrandt, J., & Nelemans, P. (2008). Injection therapy for subacute and chronic low-back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 3(3). doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001824.pub3
Taylor, M. L. (2011). The impact of the “business” of pain medicine on patient care. Pain Medicine, 12, 5, 763-772.
AUTHOR: Murray J. McAllister, PsyD
DATE OF LAST MODIFICATION: 5-4-2014