Epidural Steroid Injections: Danger Worth the Benefits?

Epidural Steroid Injections: Worth the Benefits? – By Christine Rhodes, MS – November 7, 2018

While most board-certified pain specialists offer epidural steroid injections (ESIs), the risks of these injections have been known for a long time.

They are successfully reaping profits from dangerous ESIs thanks to the CDC, which now seems to have taken over both pain management and substance abuse treatment from doctors.

With its vigorous opposition to the use of opioids and complete silence about the hazards of any non-opioid pain treatments, the CDC is practically endorsing any treatment that doesn’t involve opioids, even if it’s risky and/or ineffective.  

Pfizer, the manufacturer of one such drug, Depo-Medrol, asked FDA to ban the treatment five years ago after receiving hundreds of complaints about injuries and complications related to the injections.

When the manufacturer, who is generating a profit with every dose created, asks the FDA to ban their own drug for this purpose, you know it’s serious.

The Growth of ESIs and Their Risks

A review of FDA records showed that 2,442 serious problems, including 154 deaths, were reported from Depo-Medrol injections performed between 2004 and March of 2018.

Most injuries occurred when the needle missed the epidural space and directly injured the nerves or deprived the spinal cord of blood.

FDA further warned in 2014 that injections of corticosteroids into the epidural space of the spine may result in rare but serious adverse effects, including loss of vision, stroke, paralysis, and death.

Yet, the number of Medicare providers giving ESIs increased 13% from 2012 to 2016.

Corticosteroids such as

  • methylprednisolone,
  • hydrocortisone,
  • triamcinolone,
  • betamethasone, and
  • dexamethasone

are FDA-approved for injection into muscles and joints.

Nevertheless, they are commonly injected along with an anesthetic into the cervical and lumbar regions of the spine. Despite the fact that this application is considered off-label use, in June 2018, the US House of Representatives approved an increase in Medicare reimbursement for the procedure as part of legislation to help tackle the opioid crisis.

When and How to Use ESIs

“The use of epidural injections is very technique-sensitive and should only be utilized by practitioners with significant training,” said Leonard B. Goldstein, DDS, PhD,

Opioids and epidural corticosteroid injections should only be used after safer and more conservative options have been tried, according to Drs. Goldstein and Mauro.

Since they must be repeated at regular intervals, you have to subject yourself to this risk over and over for the rest of your life (it’s not just opioids that are a life-long treatment).

For many patients, even opioids are less risky than these injections. For patients who have already proven that they can take these medications responsibly, opioids are so safe that it seems like malpractice to subject a patient to such a risky procedure.

They recommend the following multidisciplinary approach:

  • History and complete physical examination
  • Proper imaging, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) when indicated
  • Conservative treatment, such as physical therapy, osteopathic manipulation, and acupuncture, for at least two weeks before using ESIs or opioids
  • Use of ESIs only after the underlying pathological condition is verified and life-threatening conditions such as pyogenic spondylodiscitis are ruled out.

Even so, Drs. Goldstein and Mauro caution that despite producing an immediate reduction in pain, the benefits of epidural injections are often small.

“While both radicular and non-radicular pain may have etiology related to the disc, non-radicular back pain has no compromise to the nerve root that exits through the foramen.

In a radiculopathy, we mustascertain the cause as well as the exact level and decide whether the use of the epidural corticosteroid injection will result in enough disc shrinkage to relieve the pressure/impingement on the nerve root as it exits the foramen,” they said.

Some pain clinics are refusing to prescribe any opioids unless patients agree to receive the spinal injections.

I find this horrifying and I can’t believe it isn’t considered malpractice.

When a doctor uses coercion to “force” a patient to submit to such a dangerous procedure as a requirement for getting “real” pain relief from opioids, how can this be accepted medical treatment?

Drs. Goldstein and Mauro consider this a ploy to have patients accept a much more expensive treatment.

Who cares about expense when it virtually puts a patient’s life in danger? Not these doctors.

Since steroids injected into the epidural space are not an FDA-approved indication, clinicians recommending or performing such procedures must carefully outline the risks without minimizing them, especially for a vulnerable patient who may otherwise disregard such risks in the presence of unrelenting, intolerable pain.

Yet, doctors are not censured or reprimanded in any way for prescribing too many ESI’s, nor do they suffer armed raids by federal agencies like the DEA.

The proven harm from these injections is equal or greater than the harm from potentially, but rarely (<5%), getting addicted to much safer opioids.

For more information about this procedure and a summary of related posts, see my page, Danger of Steroid Injections.

4 thoughts on “Epidural Steroid Injections: Danger Worth the Benefits?

  1. peter jasz

    RE: Epidural Steroid Injections: Danger Worth the Benefits?


    Sticking/poking a needle anywhere in the vicinity of the spine (thecal sac/discs) is deadly dangerous. Should ESI be “successful” any benefit derived is short-lived; weeks to months.
    If the injection goes awry (happens all the time), you may very well leave with a permanent neurological injury/arachnoiditis, vicious, unrelenting pain -or perhaps not leave at all.

    Hi Christine: Excellent write-up.

    A ‘risk’ (of ESI’s) not mentioned is Adhesive Arachnoiditis, either within minutes -or shockingly years/decades later. Should one be so unfortunate as to develop “AA” -believe me when I say it’s very, very likely you’d wish upon the “other” serious side-effects; loss of vision, stroke, paralysis, and death. Yes, AA is horrific beyond comprehension.

    ” …Some pain clinics are refusing to prescribe any opioids unless patients agree to receive the spinal injections”.
    ” I find this horrifying and I can’t believe it isn’t considered malpractice”.
    (IT IS -HORRIFYING. Those adversely affected should seek legal counsel.)

    Another great observation made:

    ” .. .With its vigorous opposition to the use of opioids and complete silence about the hazards of any non-opioid pain treatments ….”

    INDEED, the side-effects of pills ‘sanctioned’ by pharmaceuticals and their golf-playing, screw-hole buddy’s are PAGES long, compared to opiate’s ‘clean’ side-effect profile; while also being supremely effective and safe -used safely for thousands of years.

    All of these observations, made by millions of people all over North America can only suggest one thing: That the Government agency’s (CDC/DEA) and others are inherently, dangerously corrupt and in bed with organized crime.
    Some pain patients (out of sheer, desperate necessity) will venture outside normal channels in effort for some life-saving pain relief.
    An ‘uglier’ story/situation is hard to imagine -but history gives us ample evidence of government abuses upon its own people. Shameful. Disgraceful.

    peter jasz


  2. judith petree

    I believe providers are pressured, maybe even required to give the cortisone injections prior to prescribing opioids. I know that I, as a patient in two different pain clinics have been told I must try them first. Neither time were they the least bit effective in relieving my back pain. T pain specialist I see now gives patients the option of trying intramuscular “trigger point” cortisone injections which are done by a nurse practitioner who has received some training in doing them. I suppose it would probably be a safer choice if I must as a condition of being prescribed opioids which do work very well to keep my pain manageable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      It’s crazy that we’re asked to try a procedure known to have little chance of effectiveness before getting a treatment known to be effective. But maybe the doctors are trying to show that they did try another method of pain treatment before giving us opioids.


  3. Pingback: HHS Report on Pain Mgmt Best Practices – part 2 | EDS and Chronic Pain News & Info

Other thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.