In the simplest of terms, an epidural corticosteroid (steroid) injection is a way to deliver medicine quickly into the body with a syringe. It is done to help relieve pain.
The medicine is injected into the epidural area. This is a fat-filled area that covers the spinal cord to protect it and the surrounding nerves from damage.
Sometimes pain relief is short-term. Other times the benefits continue for some time. This procedure is usually part of a treatment plan that may also include physical therapy, exercise, lifestyle changes, and oral anti-inflammatory medicines.
If you have intense, difficult-to-treat pain in your legs or arms from inflamed spinal nerves, then an epidural steroid injection might give you quick relief. Often, nerve passages from the spine to your arms or legs become narrowed, causing this pain. This narrowing can cause inflammation of the spinal nerves.
A number of conditions may add to this narrowing, including:
Thickening ligaments in the spine because of spinal arthritis
Injected steroids reduce inflammation and open up these passages to provide pain relief.
An epidural steroid injection generally causes no problems. If you do have side effects, they may include:
"Steroid flush," or flushing of the face and chest, with warmth and an increase in temperature for several days
Increased blood sugar
Pain at the injection site
Skin discoloration at the injection site
Anxiety and irritability
In rare instances, pain that actually increases for several days after the procedure
Serious complications are rare but can include:
You will be asked to read and sign a document called an informed consent form. Be sure to read the document carefully and ask questions before you sign.
Tips for preparation include the following:
An epidural steroid injection is generally an outpatient procedure. You may be asked to change into a surgical gown to make the injection process easier.
You may want to ask for a mild sedative, but most people receive just local anesthetic.
If you have diabetes, an allergy to contrast dye, or certain other medical conditions, you'll want to discuss any concerns with your healthcare provider before getting the procedure.
Based on your medical condition, your healthcare provider may request other specific steps.
An epidural steroid injection is a simple procedure:
Your healthcare provider will use an X-ray machine showing moving images on a screen to guide the needle as the healthcare provider makes the injection and ensures that the needle is in the correct location.
Contrast dye is injected at the site to make sure that the medicine will be sent to the exact place it needs to go.
The healthcare provider will inject the steroid medicine itself, often along with a local anesthetic to help with pain relief.
Once the procedure is done, you can return home. Usually, you'll be able to return to normal activities on the next day. The steroids usually start working within 1 to 3 days. In some cases, you might need up to a week to feel the benefits.
Many people get several months of improvement of pain and function from the injections. If the injection is effective, it can be repeated. If you have any side effects, be sure to contact your healthcare provider.
If you don't have pain relief, talk with your healthcare provider.
This may be a sign that the pain is coming from someplace other than the spinal nerves.
After the procedure, seek urgent medical care right away if you have:
Severe headache with nausea and vomiting
Loss of bowel or bladder control
New onset of numbness or tingling
Before you agree to the test or the procedure, make sure you know:
The name of the test or procedure
The reason you are having the test or procedure
What results to expect and what they mean
The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
What the possible side effects or complications are
When and where you are to have the test or procedure
Who will do the test or procedure and what that person’s qualifications are
What would happen if you did not have the test or procedure
Any alternative tests or procedures to think about
When and how you will get the results
Who to call after the test or procedure if you have questions or problems
How much you will have to pay for the test or procedure