Steroids are a common form of treatment for back pain. Usually, steroids are prescribed if over-the-counter medications do not adequately alleviate a patient’s pain and the patient or physician prefers a non-narcotic approach.
Corticosteroids — the type of steroids used to treat back pain — are powerful anti-inflammatory medications. Corticosteroids differ from anabolic steroids, which are synthetic substances that are used to promote muscle growth. Corticosteroids work by suppressing the body’s natural immune system response that triggers inflammation. Because inflammation is one of the most common causes of back pain, steroids can be a very effective component of a multi-dimensional treatment plan.
Oral steroids versus steroid injections
There are two primary ways that corticosteroids can be given. Oral medications are the more common option. With this treatment, a patient will take several pills over a period of four to 10 days, starting with a high dosage that tapers gradually over the course of the treatment cycle.
In other situations, steroids can be injected directly into the spine. Epidural steroid injections, for example, deliver the medications directly to the space between the spinal vertebrae and spinal fluid. Sometimes, the corticosteroids are combined with a short-acting numbing medication, as the corticosteroids are designed to last a long time but can require several days to take effect. Injections can provide significant relief from chronic back pain. If needed, a person can have two or three epidural steroid injections over the course of a year (any more than that is generally discouraged due to the potential risk of nerve damage).
Talking to your physician about steroids
If you’re considering steroids for back pain, you’ll want to ask your physician about the potential risks and benefits of this type of treatment. Most people can use corticosteroids for a short period of time without experiencing any major issues, but some people do develop headaches, localized pain and other complications.
You’ll also want to ask your physician about which corticosteroid might be right for you. There are several different medications, including prednisone and dexamethasone, which can be used to treat back pain. The right option for you will depend on your diagnosis and other individual factors. If one type of steroid does not relieve your back pain, you may be able to try a different medication before moving on to other types of treatment.