Do Epidural Injections for Spinal Stenosis Produce Systemic Effects?

In adult medicine we see a great many senior citizens in chronic pain limiting their ability to walk and function due to severe spinal stenosis usually at the lumbar and or sacral spinal level. The bony vertebrae designed to protect the nerve bundles of the spinal cord impinge on the spinal cord as we stand upright and try to walk causing severe pain in the anterior thighs limiting activity and walking.

One of the treatments of choice prior to surgical intervention is injection of the area with an anesthetic pain killer such as lidocaine and corticosteroids. The injections are given by back and pain specialists usually in a series of three shots over time. Usually they provide some pain relief for a period of time. Since the pain is severe and life activity restricting we do not think much about the consequences of these injections beyond the usual risks of bleeding, introducing infection and or getting too close to a nerve or the spinal cord itself.

In a recent study published and then summarized in the online journal “Primary Care “, 400 hundred patients were randomized to receive lidocaine (a pain reliever anesthetic) or lidocaine plus a corticosteroid. The study determined that at three weeks there was a greater than 50% reduction in the measured level of cortisone in over 20% of the participants receiving the steroid injections. The average base line reduction in cortisol level over 3 weeks was over 40% in those receiving methylprednisolone and triamcinolone.

This information is important because it indicates these steroids are being systemically absorbed and suppressing the patient’s own production of cortisol through the adrenal glands especially in those receiving longer acting preparations. The patients are primarily elderly with multiple medical issues requiring us to look closely at whether they need a steroid stress level boost in medication during that time period if they develop an infection or exacerbation of any of their non-back related medical chronic conditions.

It will be important for patients to let their doctors know if they have received epidural steroid injections recently and to be aware of the name of the steroid used so you can be protected from not being able to respond to a stress with a cortisol burst.

Lack of Vaccination Coverage in the Medical Office

This week a patient, going on a foreign trip, was required to fill out a vaccination and immunization record to obtain a visa. To his dismay he discovered his records were not available. On further questioning he realized his vaccinations were done at retail clinics and pharmacies up and down the Eastern seaboard. Yes, he had requested a record of the vaccination be sent to the office but it never arrived.

I am a firm believer in the recommendation of the CDC, American College of Physicians and Advisory Council on Immunization Practices. Their literature is displayed in my office and available as a resource to my patients. I find it abhorrent that CMS, through its Medicare Part D program, will pay for the shingles shots (Zostavax and Shingrix) and the pneumonia series (Prevnar 13 and Pneumovax 23) at the pharmacy but not at a doctor’s office. The pharmacies use these vaccinations as loss leaders to get individuals into the store hoping that they will buy additional items while there.

As a general internist and practitioner of adult medicine, I too use these vaccinations as a “loss leader.” When patients call for a vaccination and have not been seen in a long while we encourage an appointment. We check on prevention items recommended by the ACP. the AAFP and the USPTF and make sure the patients are current on mammograms, HPV or Pap testing, colonoscopies, eye exams, hearing evaluations, skin and body checkups and other essential health items. We make little or no money on vaccinations or immunizations but like the idea that once a patient is here we can provide a gentle reminder about those health tasks we all need to follow up on with some regularity.

I like the idea of making vaccinations and immunizations more convenient for patients. I just believe the same payment should be made if the patient is in your office or in the pharmacy. In addition, the law should require the pharmacy to send a record of the vaccination to the patient’s physician so we can have immunization records readily available.

The ACP, AMA, American College of Physicians and American Academy of Family Practitioners should be using their influence to encourage the Center for Medicare Services (CMS) to pay for these vaccines in doctors’ offices as well as in pharmacies and retail clinics. If encouragement doesn’t work then legal action is appropriate.