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The Pros and Cons of Cortisone Shots

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You've probably heard of a professional athlete having to receive a cortisone shot to fight through an injury. You may even know a friend, a family member, or a co-worker who's undergone the procedure. But for many of us, the treatment is outside our realm of direct experience.

Even though they're administered relatively frequently, cortisone shots are typically reserved for significant discomfort. In the 60-plus years since the treatment was introduced, it's helped an incalculable number of people gain relief from pain and inflammation, particularly in their joints. And even though cortisone shots are common among professional sports players, you don't have to be a hard-charging athlete to benefit from this injectable medication.

Despite the effectiveness of cortisone, it can come with some considerable side effects. Let's take a closer look at the treatment, its uses, and its potential drawbacks.

What Is Cortisone?

Cortisone is a type of man-made steroid that mimics the effect of cortisol, a hormone naturally occurring in the body. This is what distinguishes the medicine from anabolic steroids, which mimic testosterone.

Corticosteroids, as they're also called, can be extremely helpful in alleviating pain for patients suffering from a range of conditions, including:

Rarely does a physician select a cortisone shot as the initial treatment. In many cases, the doctor will first recommend less invasive steps such as weight loss, physical therapy, exercise, or over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen.

If a physician does think corticosteroids are the best option, shots are typically injected directly into a particular area of the body for local relief. Shortly after a cortisone injection, the anti-inflammatory action reduces swelling and pain. Within several days, the relief can be nearly complete, even for those suffering from extreme pain.

However, the effects aren't permanent; they can last anywhere from a few weeks to six months. In that sense, cortisone does not represent a cure, merely a temporary way to mitigate pain and swelling.

The Downsides

Cortisone shots' ability to almost fully alleviate extreme pain is extraordinary, but there are some negatives to consider. The side effects that a cortisone shot can trigger may counterbalance or outweigh its ability to reduce pain and inflammation.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the side effects from cortisone shots include:

  • Dizziness or headaches.
  • Skin issues, including dryness, thinness, acne, dry skin, and red or purple blotches.
  • Fatigue and trouble sleeping.
  • Mood swings and disturbances.
  • Increased appetite, weight gain, and water retention.

Some side effects can be serious. These include:

  • Vision problems.
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing.
  • Seizures.
  • Swelling in various areas of the body.
  • Rash, hives, and itching.

Side effects can vary from person to person. They could be mild or severe. They might appear with short-term use or never show up at all. Long-term, repeated administration of cortisone shots can be particularly problematic, as frequent injections in the same joint can damage it, as well as the surrounding soft tissue.

It's important to remember that cortisone injections alter your immunity function, lowering the inflammatory response that your body mounts to fight injury and infection. This will reduce pain and swelling, but it can leave you open to infections and other issues.

While it's true that the list of possible side effects is long, the advantages of corticosteroids can be significant. If you or someone you love is suffering from a condition that may require a cortisone shot, be sure to talk to your physician about the pros and cons. Discuss how other medical conditions you or your loved one have may affect the use of cortisone. It's an important decision, and you don't have to make it alone.

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