So you’re in pain. Like, a LOT of pain and you are in search of the magic bullet to fix it. You’ve tried it “all”.
Frustrated and left without a resolution it’s been recommended by your medical provider that a Cortisone injection will get you out of pain and … they’re right.
But before you decide to take the needle, or live the life of a martyr, I’m going to give it my best shot to layout the Pro’s & Con’s about Cortisone Injections so that you can make an informed decision and make sure you exhaust some, if not all of your options.
What is Cortisone?
Cortisone is a man-made version of the natural hormone – Cortisol, that is produced by the adrenal glands. It falls into a class of steroid hormones called corticosteroids which assist a wide range of physiological processes such as stress and immune responses. The reason why cortisone injections have been a popular form of treatment for painful orthopedic conditions since it was first introduced in the 1950s is because of its ability to suppress local heat, redness, swelling, and tenderness; all which are characteristics that we have come to know as, inflammation.
Makes sense right? If something is inflamed, get rid of inflammation!!!
But I urge you to read this with extreme caution. There have also been other things that we’ve been made to believe.
The Earth was flat.
To prevent heart disease, switch to margarine, stay away from all fats, throw out egg yolks, and eat skinless and boneless chicken breast. All-day. Every day.
Val Kilmer as Batman.
To keep skin healthy, young-looking, prevent skin cancer and feel radiant, limit exposure to sunlight, use sunblock when you do get outside (like all the time), and wonder why you’re vitamin D deficient and feeling meh.
George Clooney as Batman.
But here’s the big one – to heal an injury, get rid of inflammation.
This is where we are wrong.
The Healing Process
There are 3 Phases of the Healing Process:
The Inflammatory phase begins at the initial point of injury and lasts up to 14 days. The Repair phase begins 2-3 days after the initial insult and lasts up to 4 weeks and the Remodeling phase begins 1 week after the initial injury and can last months to years.
To piggyback off the previous work of Gary Reinl, author of Iced, we need inflammation to begin the healing process. Inflammation is the intrinsic signal that our clever body is sending at a microscopic level to start cleaning up the mess we created. Suppressing inflammation only delays this series of overlapping and sequential phases that are required for new and healthy cells to repair, build, and mature.
Inflammation is also an extrinsic signal that we need to do a better job of how we are moving and/or dosing movement.
Either way, inflammation is information.
So why would we want to prevent ourselves from receiving information? Because it can grant us the instant gratification of blocking painful signals that stop the feeling of pain.
But it can come at a cost such as:
A decrease in tensile strength of tendons and ligaments
Decrease the force output of muscle
A higher chance of re-injury
How? Because it has been shown to have catabolic effects on nearly every aspect of tissue healing and growth.
Inflammation V. Swelling
There is a difference between inflammation and swelling. By now we know that Inflammation is the body’s essential response to start the healing process by sending the right cells at a molecular level to perform their respective jobs.
Swelling is the byproduct of inflammation, that if left alone, will accumulate and remain stagnant. It’s similar to eating more when you’re already overly full. There’s nowhere for the food that’s been sitting in your belly to go but yet you still keep taking bites of red velvet cake because, c’mon, it’s red velvet cake.
Swelling actually becomes the source of pain. This is why we want to start moving in, as pain-free a way as possible to, as Kelly Starett would say, “take the garbage out and bring the groceries in”, as early as possible.
Movement is Medicine
Movement (muscle contractions) is the simplest and cheapest method to start flushing out swelling and is critical to jump-starting the healing process. Remember, bad stuff out, good stuff in.
First start with the most basic and simple movements that you can think of, at the farthest joint from the site of injury. For example, if you’re suffering from an acute onset of shoulder pain, start by moving the thumb and fingers, then slowly progress to making a fist, then move the wrist, and so on and so on until you’re able to create contractions throughout the whole arm. The goal and purpose of this are to prevent stagnant build-up of waste, promote lymphatic drainage, re-establish a relationship of trust and prevent unnecessary muscle wasting so that you can start to re-gain functional use and then eventually load tendon, muscle, and joints again.
There are also electrical stimulation devices, or compression systems that can provide mechanical assistance during prolonged periods of stillness or when it’s not possible to actively and vigilantly produce your own muscle contractions such as while you’re working, sleeping, or binge-watching your favorite show.
When Enough is Enough
Remember that martyr life I mentioned earlier? Don’t do that either. If you’ve become a hot, self-medicating, and sleep-deprived mess, especially longer than the outlined phases of healing, then it may be time. Cortisone injections are not intended to heal, but they can facilitate and provide much-needed relief, especially if your HRV scores or nervous system is fried.
Keep in the back of your mind the catabolic effects of Cortisone injections and some of the research that suggests that those who exclusively receive injections, without other interventions, have a higher rate of re-injury in the long-term. So make sure to counteract those effects with actions that support protein synthesis by getting enough collagen into your diet, fixing the root cause of the issue, and progressively loading with exercise.
So to summarize the pros and cons of Cortisone Injections.
Badass at knocking out Inflammation
Blocks signals of pain
Does not heal damaged or injured tissue
It weakens tissue, which results in:
A decrease in force output of muscle
Accelerated degeneration of cartilage
Masking of painful and activity limiting input
Over the course of the long term, can result in a higher rate of reinjury if it is used as the only “remedy”