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.

Physical Therapy as Effective as Surgery in Lumbar Spinal Stenosis

Anthony Delitto, PT, PhD and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh published an article in the April 7, 2015 Annals of Internal Medicine documenting that at the two year mark, physical therapy was as effective as surgical decompression in spinal stenosis of the lumbar spine. The study involved 169 patients diagnosed with spinal stenosis with imaging confirmation by either CT scan or MRI. These patients all met the accepted criteria for surgical intervention, all had agreed to and signed consent for surgery and all had leg pain with walking (neurogenic claudication). None of the patients had previous back surgery.

After all had consented to surgery they were randomly assigned to a surgical group or a physical therapy group that had exercise sessions twice a week for six weeks. They were then followed for two years. The physical therapy exercises included general conditioning plus lumbar flexion exercises.

All the participants charted their course with a self- reported survey of physical function which consisted of scores from zero to 100 on topics such as pain, function and mental health. The patients were all reassessed at 10 weeks, 6 months, 12 months and 24 months.

There was no difference between the surgical group and the physical therapy groups in the category of physical function at any time during the follow-up. Despite this 47 of the 82 patients assigned to the physical therapy group crossed over and had surgery with nearly a third in the first ten weeks. Patients crossed over to surgery for both medical and financial reasons citing the high cost of copays for physical therapy. Jeffrey Katz, MD, director or the Orthopedic and Arthritis Center at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston felt that the paper “suggests that a strategy of starting with an active, standardized physical therapy regimen results in similar outcomes to immediate decompressive surgery over the first several years.”

This paper gives us excellent data on the belief that surgery of the back should be a last resort. Since the study only looks at two years, it is hoped that continued follow-up over time will allow us to see the real life situation we see in our patients who live with this condition for decades not months.

Physical Therapy as Effective as Surgery in Lumbar Spinal Stenosis

Physical TherapyAnthony Delitto, PT, PhD and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh published an article in the April 7, 2015 Annals of Internal Medicine documenting that at the two year mark, physical therapy was as effective as surgical decompression in spinal stenosis of the lumbar spine. The study involved 169 patients diagnosed with spinal stenosis with imaging confirmation by either CT Scan or MRI. These patients all met the accepted criteria for surgical intervention, all had agreed to and signed consent for surgery and all had leg pain with walking (neurogenic claudication). None of the patients had previous back surgery.

After all had consented to surgery they were randomly assigned to a surgical group or a physical therapy group that had exercise sessions twice a week for 6 weeks. They were then followed for two years. The physical therapy exercises included general conditioning plus lumbar flexion exercises.

All the participants charted their course with a self- reported survey of physical function which consisted of scores from zero to 100 on topics such as pain, function and mental health. The patients were all reassessed at 10 weeks, 6 months, 12 months and 24 months.

There was no difference between the surgical group and the physical therapy groups in the category of physical function at any time during the follow-up. Despite this 47 of the 82 patients assigned to the physical therapy group crossed over and had surgery with nearly a third in the first ten weeks. Patients crossed over to surgery for both medical and financial reasons citing the high cost of copays for physical therapy. Jeffrey Katz, MD, director or the Orthopedic and Arthritis Center at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston felt that the paper “suggests that a strategy of starting with an active, standardized physical therapy regimen results in similar outcomes to immediate decompressive surgery over the first several years.”

This paper gives us excellent data on the belief that surgery of the back should be a last resort. Since it doesn’t follow the patients for more than two years it is hoped that continued follow-up over time will allow us to see the real life situation we see in our patients who live with this condition for decades not months.