Autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and joint conditions like tendonitis may not seem to have much in common. However, there’s one important thing these two types of conditions share — they can both be treated with steroid injections.
Autoimmune disorders and certain joint and muscle conditions both cause inflammation, which steroids can help reduce. Though steroids are available in numerous ways, an injection is often the best course of treatment.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at steroid injections, the conditions they treat, what the procedure is like, and possible side effects.
The steroids you get in these injections are called corticosteroids. They’re different than anabolic steroids, which are used to build muscle.
Corticosteroids are man-made versions of cortisol, a hormone that’s naturally made by your adrenal glands, which sit above your kidneys.
These hormones help:
- respond to stress in your body from injury or illness
- reduce immune system activity, which helps ease inflammation
Steroid injections help increase your natural hormones’ anti-inflammatory and immune-suppressing power.
Steroid injections are used for several different types of diseases, conditions, and injuries.
They can be used for immune-related diseases, including:
They can also be used for joint and muscle conditions, such as:
Before your injection, you may need to stop taking certain medications. Talk to your doctor about what medications you take. Don’t make changes unless they tell you to.
Steroid injections must be done in a doctor’s office or hospital. Once you get to your appointment, your doctor will go over the procedure and have you sign a consent form. Then they’ll have you lie in a way that allows them to access the injection site.
Your doctor may then use an ultrasound to figure out where exactly to give you the injection. Once they have the right place, they’ll inject a mix of the steroid and a numbing medication. The shot may be uncomfortable, but the numbing medication will take effect quickly.
Injections can be given into:
- muscles or tendons
- your spine (an epidural)
- bursae, which are fluid-filled sacs between some tendons and joints
You’ll need to keep the injection site clean and dry for the next 24 hours.
The site may be sore for a few days. You can use a cold pack on the injection site if you need to, for up to 10 minutes at a time. Wait at least 24 hours before using heat on the injection site.
Steroids can also be given through the veins (intravenously). This method is usually used for autoimmune flares.
Most steroid injections take a few days to start working. In some cases, they can start working even sooner, within a few hours.
Steroid shots usually last up to one or two months. However, they can last longer, especially when used with other treatments such as physical therapy. Injections for certain conditions, such as acute joint pain, may also last longer.
It’s best to limit steroid injections to three or four times a year. More frequent injections can cause the skin and bone around the injection site to weaken.
Potential side effects of steroid injections include:
- pain around the injection site, ranging from minor to intense pain, which is often called a cortisone or steroid flare
- bruising around the injection site
- face flushing for a few hours
- thin or pale skin around the injection site
- high blood sugar for a few days, if you have diabetes
- temporary high blood pressure, especially if you already have hypertension
- dimples around the injection site due to fat loss
- increased appetite
- an infection, which may be serious — call your doctor if the injection site is swollen, red, and painful
In rare cases, an injection in the spine can cause a bad headache that can only be relieved by lying down. Call your doctor if you experience this side effect.
Steroid shots may not be right for everyone. Talk to your doctor if you:
- have had a steroid injection within the last few months
- are allergic to steroids
- have an infection
- have had a vaccination recently or plan to have one soon
- have diabetes, high blood pressure, epilepsy, or issues with your liver, kidneys, or heart
- are pregnant or breastfeeding
- are taking anticoagulants (blood thinners)
Your doctor can help you determine if the benefits of steroid shots outweigh the risks.
Steroid injections can be a key part of a treatment plan for many autoimmune and joint conditions. Steroids can be injected into joints, muscles, tendons, the spine, or bursae. They can also be given intravenously, usually for autoimmune flares.
When used with other treatments, such as physical therapy, they can provide symptom relief for several months at a time. It’s best not to have more than three or four steroid injections per year.
After getting a steroid injection, if you have a bad headache or develop an infection at the site of the shot, be sure to follow up with your doctor.