Back Pain and Sciatica: Are Steroid Shots the Best Option?

Photo of injectable medicine.
nano/Getty Images

If you have low back pain and sciatica, you may have tried many different treatments to find relief and to improve your ability to function. Your doctor may prescribe medication, physical therapy, or spinal decompression to attempt to treat your problem.

Epidural steroid injections are another common way to non-surgically treat the low back and leg pain associated with sciatica. The medicine is usually a steroid that is injected in your spine near the inflamed lumbar nerve.

This steroid helps to decrease pain and swelling around the nerve root, and thus, offer relief from sciatica.

Are Steroid Shots the Best Choice?

A study recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine examined the effect of three different injections in the spine. The researchers randomized 85 patients with lumbar radiculopathy of less than 6 months duration into three groups. One group received injections of steroids, one group received etanercept (an arthritis medication with the trade name Enbrel), and the third group received normal saline injections. All participants received two injections spaced two weeks apart.

The main outcome measure in the study was leg pain one month after the second injection was administered.

The results indicate the there was more improvement in symptoms with the epidural steroids, but the improvement was not statistically significant when compared to etanercept or saline.

That's right-your doctor could possibly inject salt water into your back to treat your lumbosacral radiculopathy, and this may help improve your pain level just as effectively as steroids. Of course, your doctor would never do such a thing, but the thought is pretty interesting.

Bottom line: for a specific group of patients, injection of steroids into the spine can help with the pain associated with sciatica.

The trick is identifying those people, and identifying those patients who would not benefit from such a procedure.

What Should You Do?

Does this study mean that you should vow never to have an epidural steroid shot for your sciatica? No. Some people benefit from injections in their back when they have sciatica. If you have back pain or sciatica, you need to find the right treatment for your specific condition.

What does help low back pain and sciatica? Most studies indicate that exercise and education are some the best and safest treatments for lumbosacral radiculopathy. Which exercises are best? A visit to your physical therapist can help find the right exercises for you. Many people with back pain benefit from low back stretching like the McKenzie Exercise program. Some patients get relief from strengthening their core and hip muscles, and others require a combination of stretching and strengthening to help treat their back pain.

Exercises to try for back pain may include:

Be sure to check in with your doctor before starting any treatment for your back pain or sciatica. He or she can guide yo to the right treatment so you can get adequate relief from pain and can return to your normal level of activity.

The most important thing you can do for back pain is to work closely with your doctor and your physical therapist to find the right combination of exercises (or injections and exercises) that can help improve your spinal motion and decrease or eliminate your pain.


McKenzie, Robin. Treat Your Own Back. 8. Raumati Beach: Spinal Publications New Zealand, 2006. Print.

Continue Reading