Using Corticosteroids for Pain Control

Corticosteroids are a class of strong anti-inflammatory drugs that can be used to control severe swelling and can control certain types of pain. They are designed to act like steroids that occur naturally in your body. Corticosteroids work by altering the immune response, controlling inflammation which can cause pain and decrease movement. Corticosteroids may be taken in pill form, applied topically to the skin, or injected directly into the tissues.

White pills
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How Corticosteroids Are Used

Corticosteroids tend to be used in the short-term, though they are often used by people who have chronic pain conditions. Some people take them for chronic swelling of the joints and tendons; however, corticosteroids are more frequently used to treat flare-ups or episodes of acute pain associated with long-term conditions. They may be used for this purpose in people who have the following conditions, in order to decrease pain and increase joint and tissue mobility:

Common Corticosteroids

Some examples of corticosteroids that may be used for pain control include:

  • Hydrocortisone
  • Prednisone
  • Methylprednisolone
  • Cortisone

Potential Corticosteroid Side Effects

Like any pain medication, corticosteroids have potential side effects. These include:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Skin changes, such as acne, redness or excess hair growth
  • Psychological changes, such as anxiety, depression or mood swings
  • A change in menstrual cycles
  • Cushing's syndrome (in the case of long-term use)

Unless these symptoms persist or become bothersome, it is usually not necessary to seek medical advice.

Serious Corticosteroid Side Effects

Some side effects of corticosteroids require immediate medical attention. If any of the following symptoms occur while taking a corticosteroid, contact your healthcare provider immediately:

  • Excessive swelling in the hands, feet or face
  • A rash that does not go away
  • Visual changes or eye pain
  • Tarry bowel movements
  • New muscle pains or weakness
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By Erica Jacques
Erica Jacques, OT, is a board-certified occupational therapist at a level one trauma center.