For anyone who suffers from back pain or neck pain, the primary goal of any treatment plan in to maximize their quality of life by minimizing pain. Another priority is typically to avoid the hassle and risks inherent in surgery and its associated recovery, if at all possible.
What is an Epidural for Back Pain or Neck Pain?
Among the many effective treatment options known to modern medicine, epidural injections and, more specifically epidural steroid injections are a relatively common component of treatment. But for all of the procedure’s routine nature, very few patients have a firm understanding of how epidural steroid injections work to treat sciatic back pain (pain that shoots from the lower back and down into the hips or legs) as well as some instances of neck pain that radiates or shoots into the arms. Here is what you should know, followed by the top three benefits of the procedure.
The Epidural Space ≠ into Your Spinal Cord
A common misconception is that the epidural injections go directly into the spinal cord. However, the epidural space is actually a very specific area. The intrathecal space is comprised of a fluid-filled sac which encases the spinal cord and nerves. The epidural space is outside of that fluid filled sac. When you receive an epidural steroid injection for back pain or neck pain, the needle is injected into the area outside of that sac.
To visualize another way, the needle is inserted into an area two layers away from the spinal cord but close to the nerves where inflammation that causes shooting pain generally accumulates. In fact, your doctor will likely use some type of imaging device, like a tiny camera called a fluoroscope (“x-ray”), to guide them to the precise location being targeted, particularly if there is something like a compressed nerve root that needs to be addressed.
The anti-inflammatory steroids (AKA corticosteroid) used in epidural steroid injections are different than the anabolic steroids most of us know as being used to build muscle mass. Corticosteroids are unique because they closely resemble cortisol—a naturally occurring hormone in the human body. They work to reduce inflammation and, therefore, treat a variety of conditions. From anti-inflammatory foods and nutritional supplements to strong prescription medications, medical health professionals counsel patients to find the most appropriate approach to fight inflammation that can wreak havoc on virtually every part of the body. For those suffering from back pain or neck pain, inflammation is the main culprit behind pain, tenderness, numbness and tingling. Epidural steroid injections are primarily used to treat pain in the lower spine that radiates down into the hips or legs (known as sciatic pain). The specific cause, severity and location of each individual’s back pain or neck pain will help the doctor to determine the appropriate placement of the epidural steroid injection, the most effective steroid to use, the amount of the substance to inject as well as the number of injections that should be planned on within a given series—or if epidural steroid injections are even a good option for that particular case at all.
When talking to your doctor, be sure to keep these top 3 benefits of epidural steroid injections in mind:
- The Procedure is Quick and Easy
Though you should plan on at least an hour for your total appointment, this is with time to speak with your doctor before and after the procedure, prep and waiting to be able to leave after being monitored for around 30 minutes following the actual epidural steroid injection, which will include a local anesthetic. The actual time it takes for the epidural steroid injection to take affect is somewhere around 15 minutes.
- Back Pain Relief Is Long Lasting
The effects of the steroids may start to be noticed a few days after the procedure and then last for weeks or months and in some cases even longer. When the huge numbers of people relying on NSAID or opioid medication to manage their back pain and the potential negative side effects of those drugs are taken into account, this is huge. Overuse of ibuprofen or aspirin can lead to conditions like bleeding in the GI tract, ulcers or even chronic renal failure. Opioids can actually make pain worse in the long term and the potential for addiction should give pause to anyone who is directed to take them regularly and for long periods of time without first exploring other options to treat certain types of back pain or neck pain.
- Epidural Steroid Injections Complement Other Treatments
While epidural steroid injections can be incredibly effective in the short term treatment of back pain, very few people find that they will be “cured” following epidural steroid injections alone. However, the weeks and months of relief described above provide an important window of opportunity for the back pain sufferer and their doctor to explore other treatment options like physical therapy and to try to avoid surgery (or, if other options have been exhausted, to provide a patient relief from pain while they are waiting for their scheduled surgery). The ability to consider treatment options that may have been off the table before because of the limitations of back pain or neck pain are invaluable for those seeking to avoid surgery.
The truth is, there is no perfect solution for back pain. But for the millions of people who have benefitted from epidural steroid injections to maximize their quality of life, the results speak for themselves. To find out more about the procedure or to talk through other treatment options for your back pain, feel free to give us a call to set up a consultation. We look forward to hearing from you!