How Long Does It Take a Cortisone Shot to Work?

Cortisone injections are a commonly used treatment for orthopedic conditions ranging from arthritis to tendonitis. Cortisone is a powerful anti-inflammatory medication that can help reduce swelling and inflammation. This, in turn, can decrease discomfort. The benefits of a cortisone shot generally take about five days to take effect.

Woman with shoulder pain
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Once it's given, a cortisone shot starts to work very quickly, although it's different for each person. Some people report immediate relief, others report improvement within a few days, and for some, it can take weeks for symptoms to improve.

Understanding how cortisone injections can be effective can help explain some of the differences in how pain relief may be experienced. This article provides details about cortisone shots, how they work, and common side effects.

How Cortisone Works

Though some people believe that cortisone makes pain go away, that's not entirely true. Cortisone shots work by decreasing inflammation. In patients with conditions like tendonitis, bursitis, and arthritis, pain is caused by inflammation. Once the inflammation subsides, pain relief follows.

A cortisone shot starts to work immediately, and inflammation usually begins to get better within a few days. The timing of pain relief can come within a few days to a few weeks, depending on how quickly the inflammation settles. Most people who have had a cortisone shot describe the gradual reduction in symptoms over a span of days to weeks.

The amount of inflammation, the type of injection given, and other factors can all affect how quickly you experience relief. If your inflammation is severe, or if the inflammation has been around a long time (chronic), the cortisone injection may take longer to take effect. In some cases, you may need more than one shot.

Not all patients respond to cortisone injections, but the good news is that many find them to be an excellent treatment for many common inflammatory conditions.

If your shot hasn't worked after a few weeks, let your healthcare provider know so that you can discuss the next steps in treatment.

How Cortisone Is Administered

There are a different types of synthetically produced cortisone medications. They vary in terms of how strong they are, how long they last, and how soluble they are in water.

Cortisone can be administered in many ways. It can be taken as an oral medication, or injected into a muscle or joint. For conditions involving bones and joints, cortisone shots are injected to a specific location in the body.

A typical cortisone injection is administered by mixing the medication with a local anesthetic (a numbing medication). The local anesthetic can help to provide immediate pain relief, and also diminishes the discomfort associated with receiving an injection.

Your healthcare provider will cleanse the skin over the area being injected. A needle can be placed in the location being injected, often a joint or a tendon sheath. Once the needle is in the proper position, your healthcare provider will inject the medication. By feeling the amount of resistance while injecting, your healthcare provider can be sure they have the needle in the proper location.

After the injection has been administered, the needle is removed, and a simple Band-Aid is placed over the injection site. Bleeding is generally minimal, although people on blood thinning medication may have some bleeding around the injection site.

When There Is Immediate Relief

While the effects of cortisone typically take a few days or longer to begin to take effect, many patients will report almost immediate relief of pain following an injection.

There are two possible reasons why pain relief is sometimes more immediate. The most common reason for immediate pain relief is that most healthcare providers will mix an anesthetic medication, such as lidocaine or marcaine, with the cortisone injection.

These local anesthetics can take effect immediately and provide dramatic relief soon after the injection. In fact, many healthcare providers will use this effect as a test to ensure the medication was injected into the located problem. If the problem was numbed by the injection, then your healthcare provider can be confident the cortisone was delivered to the proper location.

The other reason why some people find immediate relief is that sometimes your healthcare provider will remove accumulated fluid at the same time they inject a swollen joint. For example, many patients with a swollen knee may have the fluid drained from the joint just prior to the injection. Having the accumulated fluid removed from the joint can lead to dramatic relief of pain.

Side Effects

Some patients may react to the cortisone injection with what is called a cortisone flare. A cortisone flare is a condition where the injected cortisone crystallizes and can cause a brief period of pain, worse than before the shot. This usually lasts a day or two and is best treated by icing and resting the injected area. 

There are also other possible side effects of cortisone. While these problems are uncommon, they sometimes do occur. Most patients find cortisone to be a helpful treatment for a variety of orthopedic conditions. Unfortunately, not every patient finds the relief they hope for with this medication.

A Word From Verywell

Cortisone injections can be effective at reducing inflammation, a common cause of joint and tendon pain. When cortisone is injected, the effects of reducing inflammation begin immediately, but the length of time it takes to experience pain relief may vary from days to weeks.

If you haven't experienced pain relief, either you haven't given the shot long enough to have its effects or the injection is not going to adequately relieve the inflammation, thus leading to pain relief. After a few weeks without relief, call your healthcare provider to see what the next steps should be in your treatment.

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