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How It Works
One way corticosteroids reduce inflammation is by decreasing the action of the body's immune response. Although this effect can help relieve pain and swelling, it may make you more susceptible to infection.
Why It Is Used
Corticosteroids are used:
- In low doses to control inflammation as "bridge therapy" when starting disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) until the DMARDs become effective.
- To treat sudden flares of joint pain.
- For short-term relief (weeks to months) in inflamed joints.
- In low doses for longer periods, for people who do not respond to other DMARDs.
- For severe symptoms such as inflammation of the sac around the heart (pericarditis) or the blood vessels (vasculitis).
How Well It Works
Use of corticosteroids has been found to be effective in reducing inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis. Corticosteroids are usually used at the lowest dose and for the shortest amount of time possible.1
Corticosteroid shots into inflamed joints can relieve pain and increase function for some people. This relief may last from weeks to months.2 In general, the same joint should not be injected more than once every 3 or 4 months.
Serious side effects often occur when corticosteroids are used for long periods of time. These include:
Uncommon and irreversible (permanent) side effects, such as:
Common and irreversible (permanent) side effects, such as:
- Bone thinning and weakening (osteoporosis).
Common and reversible (will disappear after discontinuing steroids) side effects, such as:
- Swelling caused by fluid retention (edema).
- Weight gain.
- Rounding of facial features.
- Mood swings, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, anxiety, euphoria.
- Easy bruising.
- Increased risk of infection from immune suppression.
- Elevated blood pressure.
- Problems with blood sugar levels (diabetes).
- Muscle weakness.
See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)
What To Think About
Long-term use of corticosteroids is not recommended because of their serious side effects.
To prevent osteoporosis while taking long-term corticosteroids, get plenty of calcium and vitamin D, and consider a preventive medicine, such as alendronate or risedronate. To come up with a plan that fits your needs, you may want to work with your doctor or a registered dietitian. Weight-bearing exercise also helps reduce the risk of osteoporosis. For more information, see the topic Osteoporosis.
Primary Medical ReviewerAnne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerNancy Ann Shadick, MD, MPH - Internal Medicine, Rheumatology
Current as ofSeptember 9, 2014