The Elephant is The Evidence—Epidural Steroids: Edited & Updated 1/7/2013
Epidural steroids are commonly used to treat sciatica (pinched spinal nerve) or low back pain. As of January 7, 2013 at least 40 deaths have been linked to fungal meningitis thought to be caused by contaminated epidural steroids, and 664 cases in 19 states have been identified with a clinical picture consistent with fungal infection [CDC]. Interim data show that all infected patients received injection with preservative-free methylprednisolone acetate (80mg/ml) prepared by New England Compounding Center, located in Framingham, MA. On October 3, 2012, the compounding center ceased all production and initiated recall of all methylprednisolone acetate and other drug products prepared for intrathecal administration.
Thousands of patients receive epidural steroids without significant side effects or problems every week. In this case, patients received steroids that were mixed by a “compounding pharmacy” and contamination of the medication appears to have occurred during manufacture. But let’s consider other patients who received epidural steroids from uncontaminated vials. How much risk and benefit are there with epidural steroids? The real issue is the effectiveness of epidural steroids. Yes, there are risks with epidural steroids beyond contamination—e.g., a type of headache that occurs when the dura (the sac around the spinal cord) is punctured and fluid leaks out. This causes a pressure change in the central nervous system and a headache. Bleeding is also a risk. But people with severe pain from sciatica are frequently willing to take those risks if there are likely to be benefits. But, in fact, for many patients who receive epidural steroids the likelihood of benefit is very low. For example, patients with bone problems (spinal stenosis) rather than lumbar disc disease are less likely to benefit. Patients who have had a long history of sciatica are less likely to benefit.
We don’t know how many of these patients were not likely to benefit from the epidural steroids, but if the infected patients had been advised about the unproven benefits of epidural steroids in certain cases and the known risks, some patients may have chosen to avoid the injections and possibly be alive today. This is an example of the importance of good information as the basis for decision-making. Basing decisions on poor quality or incomplete information and intervening with unproven—yet potentially risky treatments puts millions of people at risk every week.
Let’s look at the evidence. Recently, a fairly large, well-conducted RCT published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) reported that there is no meaningful benefit from epidural steroid injections in patients who have had long term (26 to 57 weeks) of sciatica [Iverson]. As pointed out in an editorial, epidural steroids have been used for more than 50 years to treat low back pain and sciatica and are the most common intervention in pain clinics throughout the world [Cohen]. And yet, despite their widespread use, their efficacy for the treatment of chronic sciatica remains unproven. (We should add here that many times lacking good evidence of benefit does not mean a treatment does not work.) Iverson et al conclude that, “Caudal epidural steroid or saline injections are not recommended for chronic lumbar radiculopathy [Iverson].”
Of more than 30 controlled studies evaluating epidural steroid injections, approximately half report some benefit. Systematic reviews also report conflicting results. Reasons for these discrepancies include differences in study quality, treatments, comparisons, co-interventions, study duration and patient selection. Results appear to be better for people with short term sciatica, but improvement should not be considered to be curative with epidural steroids. In this situation, it is very important that patients understand this fuzzy benefit-to-risk ratio. For many who are completely informed, the decision will be to avoid the risk.
With this recent problem of fungal meningitis from epidural steroids, it is important for patients to be informed about the world of uncertainty that surrounds risk, especially when science tells us that the evidence for benefit is not strong. Since health care professionals frequently act as the eyes of the patient, we must seriously consider for every intervention we offer whether benefits clearly outweigh potential harms—and we must help patients understand details regarding the risks and benefits and be supportive when patients are “on the fence” about having a procedure. Remember Vioxx, arthroscopic lavage, vertebroplasy, encainide and flecainide, Darvon and countless other promising new drugs and other interventions? They seemed promising, but harms outweighed benefits for many patients.
1. http://www.cdc.gov/HAI/outbreaks/meningitis.html accessed 12/10/12
2. Cohen SP. Epidural steroid injections for low back pain. BMJ. 2011 Sep 13;343:d5310. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d5310. PubMed PMID: 21914757.
3. Iversen T, Solberg TK, Romner B, et al. Effect of caudal epidural steroid or saline injection in chronic lumbar radiculopathy: multicentre, blinded, randomised controlled trial. BMJ. 2011 Sep 13;343:d5278. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d5278. PubMed PMID: 21914755.