COVID Information Learn More


August 24, 2017

Sports Injuries: What Are the Risks of Steroid Injections?

Sports injuries can result in chronic pain that affects athletic performance.

Although many athletes try to play through pain, many eventually are forced to seek treatment if the discomfort limits their ability to perform. Traditionally, steroid injections were used for this purpose. In fact, corticosteroid treatments remain one of the most popular types of minimally invasive treatments for sports injuries.

Today, however, the research has begun to suggest that the rewards may not be worth the risks, at least for some patients.

How Do Steroid Injections Treat Sports Injuries?
When we talk about steroid injections, we refer specifically to shots of cortisone, also known as a corticosteroid. Cortisone, a steroid hormone, is produced by the adrenal gland and released into the body (along with adrenaline) as a response to stress. When released by the body, cortisone and adrenaline prepare the body for the fight-or-flight response.

Synthetic steroid injections, delivered in or near the site of an injury, can reduce trauma-related inflammation and provide substantial pain relief. The results are not permanent, however, with most patients reporting relief for six to 12 months.

Side Effects and Risks of Steroid Injections for Sports Injuries
The side effects associated with steroid injections range from mild to severe, although severe reactions are rare. These include temporary pain, swelling, infection and discoloration of the skin at the injection site. In some cases, patients may experience allergic reactions or an increase in blood glucose levels.

Complications resulting from corticosteroid injections may include nerve damage, joint infection, a thinning of skin and soft tissue near the injection site, bone weakening (osteoporosis) or bone death (osteonecrosis) and tendon weakening or rupture.

The Mayo Clinic warns that steroid injections may also cause a deterioration of cartilage in the joint. Consequently, patients are advised to limit the number of treatments to not more than three or four a year, unless your doctor advises you otherwise.

Alternative Options for Treating Sports Injuries
Although orthopedic surgeons and sports medicine doctors use corticosteroid injections safely and effectively in many cases, some patients either cannot or prefer not to undergo this treatment. Fortunately, alternative treatment options can be effective for treating sports injuries.

For many patients, a conservative treatment approach can be effective. This typically is the RICE protocol of rest, ice (and/or heat), compression and elevation. Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can provide effective relief for pain and swelling.

Unfortunately, conservative treatments can be slow to provide relief, and ultimately, they may provide no benefit.

Orthobiologic (regenerative medicine) treatments are a highly effective alternative for many types of sports injuries. Both platelet-rich plasma and bone marrow-derived stem cell injections offer a minimally invasive alternative to steroid injections, but without the potential risks and side effects.

The right approach for treating your injury will depend on several factors, including the nature of the injury, your overall health and your goals for recovery and rehab. Consultation with an orthopedic or sports medicine physician is the only way to ensure that you receive the safest, most effective treatment for your sports injuries.