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Bad news for sciatica sufferers – steroid injection is useless

Sciatica, although common, can often be debilitating.

It occurs when the body’s biggest nerve – the sciatic nerve – becomes compressed (usually by a slipped disc). The compression causes extreme shooting pains that begin in the lower back and usually travel down one leg, sometimes right to the toes.

Pain ranges from a mild feeling of weakness, to a constant searing and stabbing pain that leaves the sufferer in agony for months on end.

There is no quick fix for sciatica and patients are usually given pain killers and told to exercise as much as possible. When pain persists for a long time however, most patients will be offered a cortisol (steroid) injection in their spine to numb the pain.

Now, researchers in Australia have claimed that the cortisol injection has no long or short-term effect on sciatica.

The team looked at the results from 23 clinical trials involving thousands of patients. Each patient had ranked their pain from one to 100 – with the higher numbers representing the worst pain.

Results showed that the injections made little difference to the back pain component in the short or the long term. However, there was a small drop in leg pain in the short term (up to three months after the injection) but no long term gain.

However, Chris Maher, a member of the research team from The George Institute for Global Health in Sydney, said the drop in leg pain was too insignificant to make the cortisol injection an effective method of treatment for sciatica.

Dr Kirkham B. Wood, from Massachusetts General Hospital said: “In general, I think we’ve learned over the years that the epidural injections are turning out to be less and less successful.”

Wood believes injections are prescribed too often, and that the benefits simply do not justify the risks or the cost.

The best treatment for sciatica is regular exercise. Unfortunately, this can be extremely painful for those with very severe pain; however, evidence does suggest that working through the pain is effective in the long run.

Acupuncture can also be used to treat sciatica, and massage therapy can help relieve the pain and tension in the back, buttocks and legs. 

View and comment on the original Daily Mail article.

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Zoe Thomas

Written by Zoe Thomas

Written by Zoe Thomas

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