What Are Steroid Injections?
Steroid injections are man-made drugs very similar to cortisol, a hormone your body makes in your adrenal glands. “Steroid” is short for corticosteroid, which is different from the hormone-related steroid compounds that some athletes use. You may hear them called cortisone injections, cortisone shots, steroid shots, or corticosteroid injections.
Steroids ease inflammation and slow your immune system. They can treat many kinds of inflammatory conditions.
How Are Steroids Given?
Steroid drugs come in several forms that differ in how easily they dissolve or how long they stay in your body.
Your doctor may give you steroids throughout your entire body (called systemically) or only in an affected area (called locally).
You might get systemic steroids:
- Through a vein (intravenously, or IV)
- Into a muscle (intramuscularly)
- By mouth (orally)
Local steroids can come as:
- Skin creams
- Injections into joints, bursae (lubricating sacs between tendons and the bones beneath them), or around tendons and other soft tissue areas
What Conditions Do Steroid Injections Treat?
Steroid injections treat problems such as:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Psoriatic arthritis
- Back pain
- Inflamed bursae (bursitis)
- Inflamed tendons near your shoulder, elbow, hip, knee, hand, or wrist (tendinitis)
Your doctor will consider your age, your level of physical activity, and other medications you’re taking when deciding whether to give you steroids.
Why Are Steroids Injected?
When your doctor injects steroids, they can deliver a high dose of medication directly to an inflamed area. Oral or IV steroids don’t guarantee how much of the medication will reach the problem area.
Steroid injections are one of the most effective ways to ease pain, but they aren’t a cure for the problem.
How Long Do Steroid Injections Last?
Pain relief from a steroid shot is different for each person. It usually starts to work within 24 to 48 hours. The effect can last several weeks or more.
Steroid Injection Side Effects
Rarely, they can have side effects such as:
- Allergic reactions
- Ruptured tendon
- Changes in skin color
- Mood changes
If you get too many injections in the same area, they can weaken your bone, ligaments, and tendons.
Not everyone will have side effects. You’re less likely to have them if you wait more than 3 or 4 months between injections.
What Are the Benefits of Steroid Injections?
Local steroid injections are less likely to cause serious side effects than other forms of steroid medications.
Steroid injections often ease inflammation in a joint so it can work better. They may keep you from needing to use oral steroids or higher doses of oral steroids, which could have stronger side effects.
When Shouldn’t You Get a Steroid Injection?
Your doctor won’t inject steroids if there’s an infection in the inflamed area or another part of your body. If a joint is severely damaged, injections probably won’t help.
If you have a bleeding problem or are taking anticoagulant medications (often called blood thinners), steroid injections may cause bleeding. Your doctor will be very careful in deciding whether to recommend them.
Having more than three or four steroid injections a year is more likely to weaken tissues such as cartilage or bone in that area.
What Role Do Steroid Injections Play in an Overall Treatment Plan?
Depending on your case, your doctor may give you steroid injections along with pain medications, anti-inflammatory drugs, physical therapy, occupational therapy, or devices such as canes and braces.
For example, if you don’t have any other health problems, a local steroid injection might be all you need for tendinitis. But if you have a condition like rheumatoid arthritis, injections will be only one part of your treatment plan.