Pain is a common complaint in the U.S., and there is an enormous number of medications available to combat it. It is a simple thing to grab some aspirin or ibuprofen to alleviate a headache, back pain, or menstrual cramps. Doctors regularly prescribe stronger anti-inflammatory medications or recommend corticosteroids when needed. While these medications may be effective at relieving minor pain, they also come with risks.
When should anti-inflammatory medications be used?
Is there a better way to treat pain?
Why do our bodies create inflammation?
We hear so much that paints inflammation in a negative light. Inflammatory diseases, chronic inflammation, using anti-inflammatory medications, and anti-inflammatory foods are a few commonly used terms. If inflammation is so harmful, why is it a normal process in our bodies?
Inflammation is actually a defense mechanism intended to protect injured tissue from infection and injury. It can be stimulated by physical trauma, wounds, burns, radiation, chemicals, viruses, and bacteria. When working correctly, inflammation eliminates the cause of injury and removes damaged tissues so the body can heal.
Even when inflammation occurs when it should, it can cause tremendous pain. Unfortunately, inflammation can also be triggered when it should not, causing allergic reactions and autoimmune responses. This can create a situation in which the body experiences chronic inflammation, or the immune system begins using inflammation to work against its own tissues. Additionally, as a body ages, the immune response often becomes deregulated and inflammation can become excessive. Excessive inflammation actually inhibits tissue regeneration, making it more difficult for your body to heal itself naturally.
Various medications exist to combat inflammation, and the pain it causes. The two most commonly used classes of anti-inflammatory medications are corticosteroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Unfortunately, these medications do not eliminate the source of inflammation and may cause side effects.
This class of medications is often called steroids but is different from the type of steroids used to build muscle. They are a synthetic drug that acts like a naturally occurring hormone called cortisol. Cortisol and corticosteroids decrease inflammation and reduce the activity of the immune system.
A common usage is in cortisone shots. A cortisone shot is often injected into a joint to relieve pain and inflammation. This treatment is used for various types of arthritis, back pain, bursitis, and tendonitis.
Corticosteroids are also delivered through oral medications, injections, inhalers, skin creams, eye drops, and ear drops. They treat a wide variety of conditions, including asthma, hives, lupus, allergies, autoimmune diseases, COPD, MS, and inflammatory bowel disease.
In some instances, these steroids can be life-saving. When inflammation threatens to damage a critical organ, corticosteroids can save the organ, potentially saving the person’s life. For most conditions, they are effective at decreasing pain and improving function but are unable to cure the illness.
They do come with a large number of risks and side effects. The likelihood of having side effects increases when using high doses for long periods of time. Oral usage commonly causes acne, weight gain, glaucoma, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, stomach irritation and ulcers, depression, osteoporosis, and stunted growth in children.
The risks involved with cortisone shots increase with larger doses and repeated use. Common side effects are cartilage damage, death of nearby bone, joint infection, nerve damage, temporary increase in blood sugar, weakening or rupture of nearby tendons, thinning of nearby bone (osteoporosis), and thinning of the skin and soft tissue around the injection site.