Joint injections

About steroid joint injections

Your doctor may suggest having a steroid injection if one or more of your joints are affected by arthritis or inflammation, including your shoulder, knee, elbow or wrist joints. Steroid joint injections can help reduce pain and swelling in your joint and allow it to move more easily.

The steroids used for joint injections are similar to those produced naturally by your body. The mildest is hydrocortisone. Prednisolone, methylprednisolone and triamcinolone are stronger and have longer-lasting effects.

Your pain relief can last for anything from one week to two months or longer, depending on the type of steroid that’s been injected. The injections can be repeated every three months if you need them. General advice is that joints are injected no more than four times per year.

Preparing for a steroid joint injection

Your doctor will explain how to prepare for your procedure. Injections can be done by your GP, rheumatologist, orthopaedic surgeon, sports physician, nurse specialist or physiotherapist. They may be done in a hospital or at your doctor's surgery.

The injection may also contain a local anaesthetic, or you may be given a separate injection of local anaesthetic before your steroid injection. This helps to temporarily relieve pain from the area as you have the steroid injection.

Your doctor will discuss with you what will happen before, during and after your procedure, and any pain you might have. This is your opportunity to understand what will happen, and you can help yourself by preparing questions to ask about the risks, benefits and any alternatives to the procedure. This will help you to be informed, so you can give your consent for the procedure to go ahead, which you may be asked to do by signing a consent form.

What happens during a steroid joint injection

Your doctor will examine the area and clean your skin with a sterile wipe.

He or she will then inject the steroid. If you're having a local anaesthetic, your doctor may give this as a combined injection with the steroid using a single syringe. Alternatively, you may have two separate injections. For certain joints, such as a hip joint, your doctor may use ultrasound or X-rays during the procedure to help guide the injection into the right spot.

If you have arthritis, you may have too much fluid in your joint, making it feel tight and uncomfortable. If this is the case, your doctor may draw the fluid out with a syringe before your injection. This is known as joint aspiration.

What to expect afterwards

After a local anaesthetic it may take several hours before the feeling comes back into your joint. Take special care not to bump or knock the area.

You may need pain relief to help with any discomfort as the anaesthetic wears off.

You will usually be able to go home when you feel ready. Before you go home, your doctor may assess the movement you have in your joint and give you some exercises to do at home.

If you have had an injection in your spine, you will need someone to drive you home. With other joints, such as your shoulder or knee, you may be ok to drive. Check with your doctor to confirm if you’re able to drive.

Recovering from a steroid joint injection

You will feel some discomfort as the local anaesthetic wears off. At first, the pain may be worse than before the injection, this is called a ‘steroid flare’.

If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Always read the patient information that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

If you're having physiotherapy, your physiotherapist may encourage you to move the joint. Alternatively, you may be advised to keep movements to a minimum for a day or two. It's important to follow your doctor or physiotherapist's advice.

Most people have no problems after steroid joint injections. However, contact your GP if you have a high temperature or persistent swelling, redness or if the pain in your joint doesn't settle within the first couple of days.

What are the risks?

As with every procedure, there are some risks associated with steroid joint injections. We have not included the chance of these happening as they are specific to you and differ for every person. Ask your doctor to explain how these risks apply to you.

Side-effects

Side-effects are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects you may get after having the procedure. Side-effects of steroid joint injections include:

  • an increase in pain and swelling in the injected area – this usually settles within a few days
  • thinning or a change in the colour of the skin around the injection site – this tends to be more common with stronger or repeated injections
  • a flushed or red face
     

Complications

Complications are when problems occur during or after the procedure. Complications of steroid joint injections can include:

  • infection – you may need treatment with antibiotics
  • damage to nerves or tendons – this is more likely with repeated injections
  • changes in the menstrual cycle in women
  • changes in your mood or insomnia
  • cartilage damage – this tends to be more common with repeated injections
     

What are the alternatives to a steroid joint injection?

The alternatives to steroid joint injections will depend on what is causing your pain. Alternative treatments include steroid tablets, anti-inflammatory drugs, painkillers and physiotherapy. Speak to your doctor about the options available to you.

How often can I have a steroid injection?

Answer

You can have a steroid injection every three months with no more than four injections a year.

Explanation

A steroid injection can be repeated every three months. However, long-term use of steroids can affect your mood, interfere with your menstrual cycle if you're a woman and weaken your bones and muscles. Repeat injections can also damage the joint. For this reason, no more than a maximum of four injections in a year are recommended.

If you still have pain or swelling after a course of steroid injections, speak to your doctor about alternative medical or surgical treatments.

Can my child have a steroid joint injection?

Answer

Steroids interfere with growth and are rarely used for children. Steroid injections are sometimes used to relieve pain in certain conditions in under 18s, such as juvenile idiopathic arthritis.

Explanation

Steroids can interfere with bone growth and therefore steroid joint injections are only recommended for people under the age of 18 rarely, for example children with juvenile idiopathic arthritis. Young children or children having several injections may have the steroid injections under general anaesthesia or sedation.

If your child has joint pain or swelling, speak to your doctor about alternative treatments.
 

Can steroid joint injections manage my symptoms over the long term?

Answer

No, steroid injections can't be used long-term.

Explanation

Steroids are used mainly to manage symptoms and not to treat the underlying cause of the condition. For example, the aim of a steroid joint injection is to ease pain and swelling and reduce stiffness so that it's easier to move your affected joint. Steroid joint injections are usually given along with other therapies to help treat or manage the condition causing these symptoms. For example, your doctor will usually recommend physiotherapy to help strengthen the joint area.

Steroids aren't recommended for long-term use because of their effects on the mind and body. For example, they can affect your mood, interfere with your menstrual cycle if you're a woman and weaken the cartilage in your joints.

If you still have pain or swelling after a course of steroid injections, speak to your doctor about alternative treatments.