If you’re experiencing severe pain or stiffness in a joint caused by injury or arthritis, then an injection of steroids (corticosteroid or cortisone) directly into the joint may help relieve these symptoms and allow you to move the affected joint much more comfortably and easily. The treatment is called an intra articular steroid injection.
The steroids used are powerful anti-inflammatory medications; they work by reducing the inflammation within the joint which causes the pain and stiffness. Joints such as the shoulder, elbow, hip, knee, hand, back and wrist all respond well to steroid injection treatment, which is usually effective for between a few weeks and several months. Patients can have up to three injections in the same joint per year.
You may also be given a local anaesthetic, mixed with the steroid in the same syringe. This local anaesthetic gives instant pain relief at the time of the injection, and often for the rest of the day or longer. If you have a steroid injection without local anaesthetic it may take longer - perhaps 3 to 5 days - before you feel the full benefit of the injection.
A steroid injection directly into the affected joint can bring relief more quickly and more powerfully than anti-inflammatory medications given by mouth, such as aspirin. It also avoids any side effects associated with anti-inflammatory medications taken orally, such as irritation of the stomach.
A steroid injection into one joint can also sometimes reduce inflammation in other diseased joints in the body when the steroid is absorbed into the circulation.
Joint injections are a commonly performed procedure and, for most people, the benefits in terms of pain relief and improved movement and mobility far outweigh any potential disadvantages.
The injection is very quick to administer and the procedure is performed as day surgery so you’ll be able to return home on the same day, but you may not be able to drive yourself. A local anaesthetic will be used to numb the area of the injection so you won’t feel anything.
For a few days following the injection you’ll need to rest the joint and avoid exercise involving the joint to allow any inflammation to decrease.
If you’ve had a local anaesthetic mixed with the steroid in the injection then you may experience instant pain relief. Otherwise it may take longer, perhaps a few days, before you feel the full benefit of the injection.
The injection is not always 100% effective and in some cases you’ll gain little or no benefit from it. There may also be a little bleeding or bruising to the area of the injection. Infection from injections is extremely rare.
Rarely, steroid injections into a joint can cause injury to the joint tissues, particularly with repeated injections. This can result in thinning of the cartilage and a weakening of the ligaments.