It’s Official: Avoid Steroid Shots for Knee Arthritis!

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steroid shots for knee arthritis

Medicine changes slowly. It takes many years of research showing that a medication or surgery doesn’t work or is harming patients before most physicians who are used to the drug or procedure will drop it. However, there is a point in time that it becomes clear based on the evidence that it’s time to abandon ship. That moment just arrived for steroid injections to treat knee arthritis pain.

While it seems like I may be hammering on steroids this week, I can’t ignore study after study showing a multitude of reasons to stop, or never start, using them. Earlier this week I explained why even the short-term use of oral steroids is bad news; today it’s steroid injections again hitting my research radar, and they’re hitting it hard. I’ve known, for many years, about the negative effects of steroid shots on cartilage. However, sometimes patients’ desires for pain relief and insurance coverage outweigh their concerns for the risks. However, even more concerning, is the myriad of doctors who still don’t know that steroids can hurt joints.

New research published this week sought to figure out if steroid shots for knee arthritis were really helping the pain and if the side effects could be measured on imaging. Before I get into the new study, let’s first review some prior studies I’ve covered on the side effects of steroid injections.

The Side Effects of Steroid Injections: A Review

There are numerous side effects of steroid injections, but despite this, many patients get them following the advice of their physicians because they seem to make them feel better for a little while. Despite how commonly these shots are given, the research has been mounting that these injections damage tissue and potentially the body. Let me explain.

I’ve pleaded my case to physicians many times to stop injecting patients with high-dose steroids. Why? Both my observations and the research. For example, I’ve seen patients come into my practice whose arthritis I believe has accelerated due to steroid shots that were given months before. In 2013 I suggested that most patients really shouldn’t get steroids injected into their arthritic joints due to their deadly effect on cartilage.

It’s not just joints like the knee, doctors are also injecting steroids into tendons. One notable side effect is that steroids deplete stem cells, weakening the tendon. This fits with research that shows that in real patients with tendinitis, patients injected with steroids feel good for a while, but then the pain comes back worse than before.

Research has continued to support the negative effects of steroids on stem cells, showing that mesenchymal stem cells, which are the most common used to treat orthopedic issues, were wiped out by steroids. The interesting connection between that research and today’s feature study is that with the steroid triamcinolone (the one used in the new study below), just a small dose compared to what is usually injected wiped out all of the stem cells.

Another issue with steroids is how they impact the whole body. For example, one study showed a dramatic increase in bone loss in older women for each steroid injection. We’ve also seen studies that show disruptions in blood-sugar control, infections leading to hip replacement failure, and the list goes on. For example, another study also found adrenal insufficiency in subjects who had steroids injected into both knees.The negative side effects research has been so concerning that we began substituting platelet lysate for high-dose epidural steroid injections many years ago, with much better results.

New Research Shows Steroid Shots for Knee Arthritis Cause Cartilage Loss and Don’t Help Pain Better Than Placebo

The purpose of the new study was to compare the effects of the steroid triamcinolone to a placebo (in this case saline) on both knee cartilage and knee pain. The study was double-blind, meaning both the subjects and those administering it did not know if the subjects were in the steroid group or the placebo group, and injections were administered every 12 weeks for a period of two years.

The result? The steroid shot subjects experienced a progression of significant cartilage loss over the two years (double that of the placebo subjects), and the effect on their knee pain was not significantly different from that in the subjects in the placebo (the saline injection) group. Neither group achieved anywhere close to the minimal amount of pain improvement to be considered clinically significant. Research authors concluded that the use of steroid shots in the knee could not be supported as an effective treatment for knee arthritis.

The upshot? Patients typically undergo steroid shots for knee arthritis in the hopes of relieving their pain, but, unfortunately, the progressive side effect is further knee-cartilage loss. This leads to more pain and, hence, more steroid injections to temporarily relieve the pain until the next steroid injection. It’s a vicious cycle that this newest study shows is never-ending since the very drug doctors are injecting into the knee for pain relief (the steroid) is furthering the patient’s arthritis (the cartilage loss). So when will this silly practice end? At what point is the physician liable for malpractice because he or she ignored high-level research and injected a steroid into a knee, facilitating the destruction of the joint?

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13 thoughts on “It’s Official: Avoid Steroid Shots for Knee Arthritis!

  1. Byron R Williams jr

    When are you coming to Phoenix. I need hip replacement. Help.

    1. Regenexx Team Post author

      Bryon,
      We’ve had a Regenexx provider in Phoenix for years. Here is information on our alternative to Hip Replacement, however severe arthritis can require the cultured procedure done only in Grand Cayman. Please see: https://regenexx.com/the-regenexx-procedures/hip-surgery/ and https://regenexx.com/find-a-physician/

  2. Dianne R

    This is exactly what happened to me. I had perfectly healthy 18 year old cartilage in my 50s. I went to my orthopedic doctor for a patellar tracking problem in both knees that could be corrected with simple exercise. But in the meantime my doctor gave me many cortisone injections. 2 years later I was bone on bone. I was and am still absolutely horrified as I have no knee damage history. I became a cripple overnight. I pursued legal action against the drug company who makes the cortisone but it couldn’t be proven unfortunately. Regenexx has helped tremendously to get my life back! I am back to hiking 3 days a week. Thank you Regenexx. You are a God send!!

    1. Regenexx Team Post author

      Diane,
      We hear that story time and again from patients…so glad your story had a happy ending!

  3. RJ Rednour

    It Would Certainly Appear to Me That This “Practice” MUST STOP NOW !
    Where Are the GOOD LAWYERS !!!
    Class Action Is The Required Remedy,
    Or This Obvious Charlatan Malpractice Continues Unabated !
    FULL DISCLOSURE NOW – The Entire Medical Establishment Is Libelous .

  4. Mike Smith

    Is this type of treatment covered by most insurance companies ?
    Thanks, Mike
    P.S. Do you have a center in Spokane, WA.

    1. Regenexx Team Post author

      Mike,
      These types of procedures are not covered by Health Insurance, yet. These are the types of issues in the way: https://regenexx.com/the-regenexx-procedures/back-surgery-alternative/ We’ve had good success in getting these procedures covered with entities that have a vested interest in the outcome, like Employer Self-funded Health coverage and Medical Cost-sharing plans. We have 2 Regenexx Providers in Washington. Our Spokane Provider currently treats the Spine only. Please see: https://regenexx.com/find-a-physician/

  5. than nguyen

    Does the same apply to steroid shots for cervical disc herniations? I have so much pain in my neck and I’m considering getting a steroid shot in the neck.

    1. Chris Centeno Post author

      Yes

  6. Janet F.

    I have had cortizone injections for a miniscus tear that lead to surgery on left knee. That led to osteoarthritis which is now bone on bone. Now I’m reading that surgery for miniscus tears are not recommended as they cut out too much cartilage leading to further pain. Now my knee is unstable, can buckle on me and cause severe pain in my entire leg. Now they want to do knee replacement or more shots. I don’t want either. Do you know of any dangers of injecting hyuralonic acid into knee? I can’t afford the stem cell treatment unless you do payment plans. But I cannot walk long with my knee in this condition.

    1. Regenexx Team

      Hi Janet,
      Very unfortunately, your case is very typical. Please see: https://regenexx.com/blog/knee-meniscus-surgery-causes-arthritis/ Most patients do well with hylauronic acid (Synvisc). It’s basically a lubricant. The one issue is because it’s made from rooster combs, tell your doctor if you are allergic to products from birds such as feathers, eggs, or poultry as Synvisc may cause an allergic reaction. For knee treatment please see: https://regenexx.com/conditions-treated/knee/ Many of our Clinics work with various forms of payment. Please call 855 622 7838 for more information.

  7. Sheena Holland

    I received a 5th corticosteroid injection within an 18th month period at derby royal for ‘very mild onset’ knee arthritis. It caused such pain half an hour later I was taken in an ambulance back to the hospital to A&E immediately after the injection screaming in pain. Told to take morphine and rest for ten days. After two weeks I was still not walking due to pain. I complained to the doctor and met him. He told me A&E were wrong to diagnose a haematoma but that it was a crystallisation of the steroid. I went back to him each month for three months telling him I’d not worked since the injection. I demanded he refer me to his boss. He did an MRI but didn’t check the report. Five months later I saw his boss who lectured me on being too young for a knee replacement. I assured him that wasn’t what I desired at 50 years of age. He told me I had ‘very mild onset arthritis and there was no reason not to be walking’. At my persistence I convinced him an X-ray would settle my complaint. He allowed this and to his horror saw I had ‘severe chondral loss’. I was bone on bone with bone bruising. He then looked at my MRI which showed the same taken three months earlier. I spent one year in bed, in a wheelchair or on crutches. I had Total chondral loss of cartilage in knee and within a day of the injection I complained to my personal doctor that my hands had stopped forming a fist they were so sore and stiff (both hands directly after injection). I also complained of pain in my back and hip. I was told that was due to the crutches and not walking. But my hands were X-ray ed the same month of injection showing severe cartilage loss in four fingers. One year later I also had shoulder and back xrays which showed arthritis in 5 discs, bulging disc and curvature of the spine. Arthritis in the shoulder and bursitis. I believe the injection has caused acceleration of cartilage loss in my body (hands, shoulder, back and knees so far and I can feel it in my hip and feet too) can we not do something legally to stop doctors giving bad advice?
    Is there anyone in the UK with the same issues?

    1. Regenexx Team

      Hi Sheena,
      Unfortunately, cartilage loss is only one of the side effects of repeated steroid shots. Please see: https://regenexx.com/blog/steroid-injection-risks/ Our Regenexx provider in the UK may be able to help with the various joint issues. They would need to examine you. Here’s their website: https://regenexx.com/providers/algocells/

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