Corticosteroids, often called "steroids" for short, are medications that help control inflammation. They are given for nerve root pain caused by herniated disc, for rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups and other conditions.
Corticosteroids can be taken orally (pill form) or they may be injected. The most common type of steroid injection used to control back pain is the spinal epidural. Steroids have varying potential side effects.
Don't let the term "steroids" mislead you; corticosteroids are not the same drug many elite athletes take to improve their game.
Corticosteroids work by blocking and reversing the damaging the effects of inflammation. (Inflammation is an immune system activity.) Specifically, steroids inhibit the production of prostaglandins and other chemicals.
Corticosteroids simulate cortisol, a type of hormone produced by the adrenal gland from cholesterol. (The adrenals are small glands that sit on top of each kidney.)
You might think of your immune system as your personal army that is sent out to protect an affected body region from an invader. When you are injured, the insult to your body stimulates the immune system to release chemicals into the area to mediate the damage and allow you to heal.
But inflammation can quickly get out of hand. When it does, it can harm your tissues, even to the point of resulting in more damage than the initial injury. That's why doctors recommend taking anti-inflammatory medications, such as Motrin or aspirin, as soon as possible after an injury.
If your back condition is chronic, chances are you constantly irritate the affected area, which in turn may fuel chronic inflammation. Corticosteroids can be injected right into the inflamed area to alleviate the pain and swelling, and to reduce the activity of the immune system.