Cortisone Shots for Back Pain - Not the Best Choice

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Cortisone shots are one of the most popular treatments for back pain, be it chronic or emergent/ severe. Also known as epidural, steroid injection, corticosteroid injection or epidural steroid injection, cortisone is a steroid hormone—and is naturally produced by the human body’s adrenal gland in reaction to stress.
Cortisone works largely by suppressing the immune system and its response---the immediate effect of which—and what makes it a popular “go to drug” for pain relief—is the reduction of inflammation, pain and swelling at the site of an injury.
The use of any drug to treat any condition is a decision that should be undertaken seriously and mindfully. Too often—and understandably, when we are in pain we cannot think beyond the overwhelming need and desire to achieve relief—sometimes at all costs.
Severe pain robs us of the ability to function at all, let alone to think rationally. Drugs without exception have side effects. Some are so very mild that it is a no-brainer to trade agony for sweet relief by their administration. Other drugs carry risks, especially in long term use, that may in the end, prove more dangerous than the original condition.
As with almost any drug—in the short term the effectiveness of cortisone can be dramatic. For some injuries, one injection can provide not only quick (though generally not instantaneous) but permanent alleviation of pain —allowing the affected joint to heal unimpeded by the swelling and inflammation that is the body’s sometimes overdone reaction to all injury.
In a perfect world this would make the drug the perfect treatment for severe pain. Other times a series of injections, three or more, may be needed to provide significant pain relief and if a permanent pain free state can be achieved, may just be worth the risks in the short term.
More often, however, respite from discomfort is only achievable by prolonged and repeated use of cortisone—and this is where the true risk of the drug becomes evident and troubling. The following are just some of the conditions that can be caused or exacerbated by long term use of cortisone:
  • hyperglycemia
  • insulin resistance
  • diabetes mellitus
  • osteoporosis
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • amenorrhea (ceasing of menstrual cycles)
  • cataracts
  • glaucoma

These are severe and life altering conditions that can impact not only quality of life, but can lead to a higher risk of complications and permanent disability. The hard fact about chronic back pain is that it can largely be prevented by exercises that strengthen the core muscles that support and anchor our spinal columns.

A back that is complemented by a strong and health muscular system is less prone to degeneration and injury and our first priority should always be to keep our muscles in balance and tone.

Our all too human desire to be rid of pain can lead to our accepting the risks for relief in the short term, without understanding that the true solution to any pain relief is in treating the underlying problem—and even better, engaging in preventative behaviors that will head off the likelihood of debilitating injury in the first place.

Cortisone and other drug treatments target symptoms and not the underlying problems. The true effectiveness of these types of therapies is in buying time for the body to heal itself and they should be considered not as the be-all and end-all of pain relief—but merely the first salvo in an diverse arsenal.

We must learn to take responsibility for our health—to understand that we have the power to protect and heal ourselves more effectively than can any drug or invasive medical procedure. Ideally we should endeavor to eat right and exercise regularly---keeping our bodies in optimum conditions at all times---a good diet and routine activity can do much to keep our bodies whole and pain free.

When we do injure ourselves, we must make the decision to first—educate ourselves completely about the causes of our debility and make informed decisions about treatments, and second to also be open to the less attractive and quick solutions to pain relief and healing.

We must be willing to undertake an exercise regimen that will address the issue that caused our injury and to investigate and sample some of the natural and holistic alternatives before we embrace the quick and easy fix.

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  • David Huckabay
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