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Epidural injections for back pain

An epidural steroid injection (ESI) is the delivery of powerful anti-inflammatory medicine directly into the space outside of the sac of fluid around your spinal cord. This area is called the epidural space.

ESI is not the same as epidural anesthesia given just before childbirth or certain types of surgery.

  • You will be asked to change into a gown.
  • You will then lie face down on an x-ray table with a pillow under your stomach. If this position causes pain, you will be asked to either sit up or lie on your side in a curled position.
  • The health care provider cleans the area of your back where the needle will be inserted. Medicine may be used to numb the area. You may be given medicine to help you relax.
  • The doctor inserts a needle into your back. The doctor will likely use an x-ray machine that produces real-time pictures to help guide the needle to the correct spot in your lower back.
  • A mixture of steroid and numbing medicines are injected into the area. This medicine decreases swelling and pressure on the larger nerves around your spine and helps relieve pain.

You may feel some pressure during the injection, but most of the time the procedure is not painful. It is important not to move during the procedure because the injection needs to be very precise.

You will be watched for 15 to 20 minutes after the injection before going home.

Alternative Names

ESI; Spinal injection for back pain; Back pain injection

Why the Procedure Is Performed

Your doctor may recommend  ESI if you have pain that spreads from the lower spine to the hips or down the leg (radicular low back pain ). This pain is caused by pressure on a nerve as it leaves the spine, most often due to a bulging disc.

ESI is used only when your pain has not improved with medicines, physical therapy, or other nonsurgical treatments.

Risks

ESI is generally safe. Complications may include:

  • Dizziness, headache, or feeling sick to your stomach. Most of the time they are mild.
  • Nerve root damage with increase pain down your leg
  • Infection in or around your spine (meningitis or abscess)
  • Allergic reaction to the medicine used
  • Bleeding around the spinal column (hematoma)

Talk to your doctor about your risk of complications.

Having these injections too often may weaken the bones of your spine or nearby muscles. Receiving higher doses of the steroids in the injections may also cause these problems. Because of this, most doctors limit patients to two or three injections per year.

Your doctor will most likely have ordered an MRI scan of the back before this procedure. This helps your doctor determine the area to be treated.

Before You Have the Procedure

Tell your doctor or nurse:

  • If you are pregnant or might be pregnant
  • What medicines you are taking, including herbs, supplements, and other drugs you bought without a prescription

You may be told to stop taking medicines that make it hard for your blood to clot for several days before the test. This may include aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), clopidogrel (Plavix), warfarin (Coumadin), naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn), and heparin.

After the Procedure

You may feel some discomfort in the area where the needle was inserted. This should last only a few hours.

You may be told to rest for the rest of the day.

Your pain may become worse for 2 to 3 days after the injection before it begins to improve. The steroid usually takes 2 to 3 days to work.

If you receive medicines to make you sleepy, you must arrange for someone to drive you home.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Epidural steroid injections provide short-term pain relief for at least half of the people who receive them. Symptoms may remain better for weeks to months, but rarely up to a year.

The procedure does not cure the cause of your back pain. You will need to continue back exercises and other treatments.

References

Chou R, Loeser JD, Owens DK, Rosenquist RW, et al; American Pain Society Low Back Pain Guideline Panel. Interventional therapies, surgery, and interdisciplinary rehabilitation for low back pain: an evidence-based clinical practice guideline from the American Pain Society. Spine. 2009;34(10):1066-77.

Staal JB, de Bie RA, de Vet HC, et al. Injection therapy for subacute and chronic low back pain: an updated Cochrane review. Spine. 2009;34(1):49-59. Review.

Jegede KA, Ndu A, Grauer JN. Contemporary management of symptomatic lumbar disc herniations. Orthop Clin North Am. 2010;41:217-24.

Updated: 4/16/2013

C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.


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