Epidural Steroid Injections Overused

And yet another article on the overuse of epidurals, showing how they are being used to generate more profit for “interventional” pain specialists.

Experts Say Epidural Steroid Injections Overused — Pain News Network – August 19, 2015/ Pat Anson

Epidural steroid injections are being used too often to treat back pain, in part because of an insurance compensation system that encourages doctors to generate more income by using the procedure, several leading experts in pain management have told Pain News Network.

Critics say epidural injections are overused and patients risk permanent damage to their spinal cords if they get the shots too often. 

“Have they been overused? Yes.

And I’ve seen the complications. They happen when people have done far too many. I’ve seen people who’ve had two to three dozen epidurals in a given year,” said Forest Tennant, MD

“It’s like a cumulative trauma. You just can’t keep doing epidurals on somebody or you’re going to get damage to the outer layer of the spinal cord. It’s amazing to me the number of people who’ve had epidurals and they can’t count how many they’ve had. I’ve had patients who say, ‘I’ve had a hundred.’ I mean, are you kidding me?”

One of Tennant’s patients compares epidurals to a game of Russian roulette.

ESI’s can be a lucrative procedure for physicians, depending on insurance payments and where the epidurals are performed. Payments can vary widely, from a few hundred dollars to over $2,000 per injection.

The debate over the safety of ESI’s often pits surgeons and anesthesiologists, known as “interventionalists,” against traditional pain management doctors, who usually rely on opioids, physical therapy and other less invasive procedures to control pain.

“We have far too many interventionalists, compared to people who do medical management. I’m on the medical management side and I wish there were a lot more of us. I mean, I’m swamped,” Tennant told Pain News Network. “But on the other hand, you’ve got plenty of interventionalists who will do an epidural any day of the week. We have an imbalance of those people who want to do epidurals.

“Let’s face it. The money motive is there. And this money motive is not just the anesthesiologists. It’s the surgery centers, it’s the hospitals. And it has caused problems.”

Lobbying the Feds

Epidurals are drawing more scrutiny from federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, which has never approved the use of steroids in spinal injections.

But steroids can still be used “off label” to treat back pain, which prompted the agency last year to warn that injectable steroids “may result in rare but serious adverse events, including loss of vision, stroke, paralysis, and death.”

That prompted an outcry from the Multisociety Pain Workgroup (MPW), a coalition of 14 different societies representing anesthesiologists, surgeons and pain management doctors. The group sent a letter to the FDA defending the use of epidurals and asked the agency to revise its warning.

“While complications with epidural steroid injections have been reported, and are likely underreported, serious complications are limited to isolated case reports,” the MPW letter states.

The FDA hasn’t changed its warning, but the MPW has stepped up its lobbying campaign with the federal government, recentlyasking the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, to tone down another report which said there was little evidence that ESI’s were effective in treating low back pain

“There is no question that epidural steroid injections are over-utilized,” said Manchikanti, who is medical director of a pain clinic in Paducah, Kentucky.  “Unfortunately, MPW has been contributing to over-utilization of transforaminal epidural injections because of their own interest in this.”

Instead of addressing the overuse of epidurals, Manchikanti says the MPW is actually making the problem worse.

“They may be even promoting them. Multiple MPW signatories have numerous conflicts of interest of their own and each one is looking out for themselves,” he wrote in an email to Pain News Network.

Manchikanti has done some lobbying of his own, and is heading an effort to get the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to change its compensation system for epidural procedures.

Here’s an example of a far too rare ethical doctor and medical group leader.

Medicare currently pays about $132 to doctors who perform epidurals in their own offices, while physicians who do the same injections in a hospital, pain clinic or surgical center will get about $670.

That “remarkable discrepancy,” according to Manchikanti, contributes to over-utilization by encouraging hospitals and other large facilities to do more epidurals.

“Office-based practices are increasingly being purchased by hospitals and in this well-documented circumstance, the ownership has the potential to change the payment dramatically,” Manchikanti wrote in a letter to the journal Pain Physician.

“These patterns increase expenses by paying a much higher rate for HOPDs  (hospital outpatient services), even though they are just physician offices. This issue also favors inappropriate performance of the procedures with bundling.”

Repeated requests to the CMS for comment on this story went unanswered.

Solutions to Overuse

“Probably everything that gets compensated well is over-utilized because it’s the compensation system. It’s a reimbursement system that pays more for treatment procedures than outcomes,” said Lynn Webster, MD, a prominent pain physician and past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, which is a part of the MPW coalition.

Like Manchikanti, Tennant and other physicians Pain News Network interviewed for this story, Webster says epidurals can be effective in managing back pain when used sparingly.

Tennant thinks the solution is limiting the number of epidurals, regardless of where they are performed.

“But I do think there needs to be some standards set based on the number of epidurals one can endure, in let’s say a year’s period of time.”

I’ve posted about this several times before, but the evidence against this procedure keeps growing.


A small number of patients does get relief from these injections, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to determine ahead of time who will benefit.


4 thoughts on “Epidural Steroid Injections Overused

  1. Gotnerve

    Although my experience was not LBP, US guided cervical epidural was the best treatment I could have ever received for a progressive cervical injury resulting in constant pain, weakness and reduced ROM. Three months post injection, my cervical spine is better than it’s been since my car crash. It took a horrific intolerable pain from a constant 8/10 to a 4-5/10 immediately. I would chance another epidural in an effort to ward off fusion surgery that was offered. G-d bless my pain management provider for suggesting I try another block at a lower level when the first two did not provide significant benefit. It was literally a shot in the dark, and a shot I would recommend to anyone with similar symptoms.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      Wow, what a success!! It must have felt like a miracle (and it is, considering the odds of injury are so high). But as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

      If only there was a clear method to determine ahead of time which patients will have such spectacular success and which will find it useless.

      It sounds like you have a great doctor who may be using his intuition to guide you to this treatment. He may perceive something aboit your pain that made you an excellent candidate for this intervention.

      The test would be whether he recommends these risky treatments for all of his patients, or only a few that he selects carefully. If it’s the latter, you’ve found a true healer.


  2. Lis

    I was lucky with my ESI apparently. When I got referred to pain management, they first did a low dose and very temporary injection to see if it even worked for me. It didn’t. It actually made me worse, but at least I didn’t have to suffer through more of the damn things.

    Liked by 1 person


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