Cortisone Injections: How They Work, Side Effects and Recovery

April 03, 2023
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Cortisone Injections: How They Work, Side Effects and Recovery

Many people experience joint pain, usually from sports, exercise, aging or various health conditions. There are many treatments to reduce or eliminate this pain, including cortisone injections, which deliver medication directly to the target area.

Cortisone shots can help relieve troublesome symptoms, such as joint pain and inflammation. Doctors often recommend cortisone injections when other non-invasive treatments don’t work or when patients are in too much pain to participate in other treatments or their daily lives. Learn more about cortisone injections below.

What Are Cortisone Shots?

Cortisone shots are injections to help patients alleviate inflammation and pain in specific locations of the body. People commonly receive cortisone injections in their joints, such as their shoulder, spine, hip, knee, elbow or ankle. Even people experiencing pain in their smaller joints, such as their feet or hands, can experience relief from these steroid injections.

These injections usually contain a local anesthetic and a corticosteroid medication, which acts as an anti-inflammatory. People who use cortisone shots can find relief from swelling or pain, but the number of injections you can receive a year is usually limited due to the potential side effects.

The Benefits of Cortisone Injections

The Benefits of Cortisone Injections

Cortisone shots can treat pain and swelling of specific joints, whether it’s due to injury, aging or a specific condition. There are many potential benefits of cortisone injections, including:

  • Treating unmanageable pain: Before doctors use cortisone shots for pain relief, they’ll usually try other methods, such as exercise, physical therapy and over-the-counter medications. When these methods don’t work and the pain becomes unmanageable through non-invasive treatments, doctors might prescribe corticosteroid injections. A cortisone shot can help target inflammation and pain in specific joints, allowing a person to manage their pain while they work through other treatments to manage their condition, injury or pain.
  • Improving work and social lives: In many cases, joint pain and inflammation can impact a person’s ability to work or participate in social life, especially if they’re lifting heavy things regularly. Cortisone shots can help provide relief so patients can get back to their regular lives. If you’ve started to notice a decrease in your quality of life because of joint pain, causing you to miss work or cancel meetings with friends, consider talking with a doctor about how cortisone injections can improve your quality of life.
  • Improving joint function: Joint pain can make it challenging to do everyday tasks, whether you’re experiencing pain in your hands, feet, shoulder, spine, hip or another location. Cortisone shots can provide inflammation and pain relief, allowing you to get back to your daily tasks without worrying about how you will manage your pain each day.
  • Limiting the necessity for invasive procedures: Many people want to avoid surgery but experience pain that makes it challenging to move on with their life or participate in their daily activities. Cortisone shots are a potentially excellent alternative to invasive options. Cortisone shots are minimally invasive and can help reduce the pain so you can participate in treatments that may help you long-term, such as physical therapy or exercise.
  • Confirming a diagnosis: Cortisone injections help doctors ensure a patient is experiencing a specific issue or condition. If the cortisone injection is delivered to a specific area and the patient experiences relief, it helps prove they are experiencing pain and inflammation from that source. This information helps doctors more accurately give a diagnosis and create a treatment plan that can help patients receive long-term relief.

Conditions Cortisone Injections Can Treat

Doctor’s offices utilize cortisone injections to treat several conditions, including:

  • Back pain
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Joint pain
  • Psoriatic arthritis
  • Reactive arthritis
  • Tendinitis
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Gout
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Bursitis
  • Lupus

If you’re struggling with any of the conditions above and aren’t finding relief from non-invasive treatments, cortisone shots can be an alternative to surgery or other invasive procedures. The cortisone shot targets a specific problem area, helping reduce pain and inflammation so you can participate in other forms of treatment like physical therapy and get back to your daily life.

How Do Cortisone Injections Work to Help You?

The medication in a cortisone shot helps calm your immune system, helping reduce inflammation and pain. Many people who receive cortisone shots feel relief almost immediately, often from the anesthetic, while others experience a gradual decrease in pain.

How Are Cortisone Injections Administered?

You can prepare for cortisone injections by understanding what to expect once you’re in the office. Once a doctor determines that you need a cortisone shot to manage your pain or condition, they’ll help you schedule an appointment for a cortisone shot treatment.

Once you go in for your appointment, your doctor may ask you to switch to a gown before they direct you to stand, sit or lay down in the appropriate position so they can administer the shot into the correct location. Your doctor will clean the area before injecting the shot and may apply an anesthetic to help reduce any discomfort.

Your doctor will then administer the shot, potentially using fluoroscopy, a type of X-ray, to ensure the needle reaches the right place. In some cases, the shot is injected directly into the target area. In others, it’s injected into a large muscle group to get the cortisone into the bloodstream. The shot often includes a local anesthetic to relieve any pain or discomfort while the cortisone gets to work easing inflammation and pain.

During the procedure, you might feel some pressure at the location the doctor inserts the needle. If you experience too much discomfort or pain during the treatment, it’s best to let your doctor know.

Potential Side Effects and Risks of Cortisone Shots

Like any other medical treatment, cortisone injections have some potential risk of side effects. Since the cortisone shot targets your immune system to reduce inflammation and pain, it can also weaken it, making you more prone to developing infections or illnesses. As a result, doctors limit how many cortisone shots you can get each year. Generally, shots are limited to once every three months for specific joints and up to four times a year for the entire body.
Potential Side Effects and Risks of Cortisone Shots

Some of the side effects of cortisone injections include:

  • Inflammation or itching: Some people experience temporary redness, itching or pain at the injection site. These effects usually disappear shortly after receiving the treatment.
  • Raised blood sugar: Cortisone shots can potentially increase blood sugar, particularly in individuals struggling to control their diabetes. Before receiving treatment, your doctor should check your current blood sugar levels to ensure you’re a good candidate for cortisone injections. You can also talk with your doctor about controlling your blood sugar levels before going through treatment.
  • High blood pressure: Some individuals experience increased blood pressure a few hours after treatment. Those with high blood pressure or a condition that causes high blood pressure should consult with their doctor before receiving a cortisone shot to ensure it won’t affect their blood pressure and raise it to dangerously high levels.
  • Osteoporosis: Some individuals can experience a loss of bone density, also called osteoporosis, and an increased risk of fractures from cortisone injections. Talk with your doctor about the likelihood of osteoporosis from cortisone injections and how to mitigate the risk.
  • Increased fluid retention: Cortisone injections can lead to an increased risk of fluid retention, leading to swelling in the limbs and lung congestion. Often, fluid retention occurs due to high, long-term doses of cortisone. You can talk with your doctor about the appropriate dose and other treatments you can participate in while taking cortisone shots.
  • Mood changes: In some cases, cortisone injections can result in mood changes, usually with glucocorticoid therapy. Most people who experience mood changes after cortisone shots have this side effect fade after some time post-treatment, but a very small percentage of people can experience persistent mood changes. You should talk with your doctor about the potential for mood changes after treatment and create a game plan to help address this potential risk.
  • Infection: All injections carry a risk of infection if they’re not correctly cared for. If you receive a cortisone injection, it’s essential to keep the injection site clean and dry until it’s healed to prevent the risk of infection.

Before receiving cortisone shots, you should consult your doctor about your medical history and the likelihood of side effects or complications from the procedure. Your doctor can guide you through the pros and cons of the injection, helping you determine the best course of action for your treatment.

The Recovery Timeline of Cortisone Shots

Once a person receives a cortisone shot, it can take up to seven days to start taking effect in the body. The injection can last around two months, sometimes longer in certain patients. Once you receive your injection, you might experience some warmth in the face or chest. If you have diabetes, you’ll need to monitor your blood sugar to watch for any temporary increases.

The Recovery Timeline of Cortisone Shots

After cortisone injections, you shouldn’t participate in certain strenuous activities, like exercising, until your inflammation has gone down. You should also follow aftercare instructions to ensure you make a complete recovery, which can include the following:

  • Protecting the injection site for a few days after the procedure: For example, if you received an injection in your shoulder, you’ll want to avoid heavy lifting for a few days, whereas an injection in your knee or foot means you should stay off your feet for a few days when you can.
  • Keeping the area clean: You’ll want to keep the injection site as clean as possible to prevent bacteria from causing an infection. Infections can set back your recovery time and cause additional pain or inflammation. Remember to keep an eye on the area and wash it regularly.
  • Watching for signs of infection: Watching for infections can help you prevent concerns that can create complications after your procedure. Signs of infection include fever, increased pain, redness or swelling that persists for more than 48 hours after the injection.
  • Avoiding submerging the injection site: Submerging your injection site can introduce bacteria, leaving you vulnerable to infection. You can shower, but it’s best to avoid baths, hot tubs and swimming pools until your injection site has healed.
  • Applying ice to the injection site: If you’re experiencing any pain at the injection site, you can apply ice to the area to find relief. Avoid using a heating pad.

How Long Do Cortisone Shots Last?

Cortisone injections are an excellent way for patients to find relief from joint pain and inflammation, but the effects don’t last forever. Generally, patients can experience the effects of the shot for several weeks up to a few months. While the results of cortisone injections aren’t permanent, they can provide necessary relief to help individuals participate in other forms of treatment to improve their long-term outcomes, such as physical therapy or exercise.

A person may need to repeat their cortisone shot as the effects gradually wear off. However, you can only take them around every six weeks and no more than three to four times a year. You can talk to your doctor about how long your cortisone injections may last and what you can do post-treatment to improve your chances of long-term pain relief.

How to Talk to Your Doctor About Cortisone Injections

If you’re considering cortisone injections for pain and inflammation relief, know it can be an effective short-term solution. You should always talk with your doctor about receiving cortisone shots before going forward with treatment. You’ll want to discuss your medical history to determine if it would be a beneficial treatment and if the pros outweigh the potential risks.

Remember that cortisone injections have some potential side effects, particularly for individuals with specific conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure. While the shots may provide pain relief, the risks may not be worth treatment if your medical history puts you at an increased risk for side effects. If you’re at risk for complications, your doctor may advise that you limit your use of cortisone injections.

You may also want to talk to your doctor about trying other methods of treatment before trying cortisone injections if your condition can be treated in other ways. Be honest with your doctor about your medical history and be open to other forms of treatment they may recommend.
Talk to Your Doctor

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Dr. Gombera

Dr. Gombera, earned his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine and completed his orthopedic surgery residency at the University of Michigan. Expanding his expertise, he undertook a sports medicine and arthroscopy fellowship at Northwestern University in Chicago. Recognized as a Super Doctors Rising Star and honored for patient care excellence at the University of Michigan, he holds multiple certifications and licenses, solidifying his dedication to delivering exceptional medical services.

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