Nerve Block Therapy for Low Back Pain: Show Me the Money and the Science, is the title of an article published in 2002, in the American Pain Society journal Pain. The author reviewed current studies and questioned the value of lumbar epidural injections and sympathetic nerve blocks.
The scientific evidence to prove efficacy simply was not there. More importantly, even with fluoroscopy and accurate placement of the needle, the solution reached the desired area only 26% of the time. The author called for research to test efficacy.
From the current review, we must conclude that lumbar epidural steroid injections and sympathetic nerve blocks produce a large amount of money, with very little science to support their application. Does this mean they are useless? Obviously not; these techniques have some value in acute pain management and should not be completely abandoned. However, their use as a mainstream ( almost knee-jerk ) intervention for acute or chronic low back pain does not appear to be at all justifiable at the scientific level.
The fundamental recommendation is quite obvious. Those pain specialists who use these techniques on a regular basis need to support and initiate some clinical research trials that adequately test these procedures’ efficacy. Without this, the routine application of epidural steroid injections and lumbar sympathetic nerve blocks for acute or chronic low back pain is not evidence based. Therefore, when can it be recommended remains an empirical question.
More recently in March 2007, the American Academy of Neurology studied the issue in depth and published Practice Guidelines on the Use of Epidural Steroid Injections to Treat Radicular [sciatic] Lumbosacral Pain.
They also found no Level A quality research and did not recommend routine use:
Based on the available evidence, the Therapeutics and Technology Assessment subcommittee concluded that
1) epidural steroid injections may result in some improvement in radicular lumbosacral pain when assessed between 2 and 6 weeks following the injection, compared to control treatments (Level C, Class I-III evidence). The average magnitude of effect is small and generalizability of the observation is limited by the small number of studies, highly selected patient populations, few techniques and doses, and variable comparison treatments;
2) in general, epidural steroid injection for radicular lumbosacral pain does not impact average impairment of function, need for surgery, or provide long-term pain relief beyond 3 months. Their routine use for these indications is not recommended (Level B, Class I-III evidence);
3) there is insufficient evidence to make any recommendation for the use of epidural steroid injections to treat radicular cervical pain (Level U).
This subject will be an intense topic of interest for the Anesthesiology Subcommittee at the annual meeting of the American Pain Society that meets in San Diego May 2009. At best, epidural injections and nerve blocks are temporizing measures. If the first one is less than effective, they are often done in a series of three. One risk of frequent steroid injections is osteoporosis.
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