BACKGROUND: Corticosteroids are medications with anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant properties. Systemic corticosteroids administered through the oral, intravenous, or intramuscular routes have been used to treat various types of low back pain, including radicular back pain (not due to spinal stenosis), non-radicular back pain, and spinal stenosis. However, there is uncertainty about the benefits and harms of systemic corticosteroids for low back pain.
OBJECTIVES: To evaluate the benefits and harms of systemic corticosteroids versus placebo or no corticosteroid for radicular low back pain, non-radicular low back pain, and symptomatic spinal stenosis in adults.
SEARCH METHODS: We used standard, extensive Cochrane search methods. The latest search date was September 2021.
SELECTION CRITERIA: We included randomized and quasi-randomized trials in adults of systematic corticosteroids versus placebo or no corticosteroid.
DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: We used standard Cochrane methods. The major outcomes were pain, function, need for surgery, serious adverse effect, and presence of hyperglycemia. The minor outcomes were quality of life, successful outcomes, non-serious adverse events, and withdrawal due to adverse events. We used GRADE to assess the certainty of evidence for each outcome.
MAIN RESULTS: Thirteen trials (1047 participants) met the inclusion criteria. Nine trials included participants with radicular low back pain, two trial with low back pain, and two trials with spinal stenosis. All trials blinded participants to receipt of systemic corticosteroids. Seven trials were at low risk of bias, five at unclear risk, and one at high risk of selection bias. Two trials were at high risk of attrition bias. Doses and duration of systemic corticosteroid therapy varied. Radicular low back pain For radicular low back pain, moderate-certainty evidence indicated that systemic corticosteroids probably slightly decrease pain versus placebo at short-term follow-up (mean difference (MD) 0.56 points better, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.08 to 0.04 on a 0 to 10 scale) and may slightly increase the likelihood of experiencing improvement in pain at short-term follow-up (risk ratio (RR) 1.21, 95% CI 0.88 to 1.66; absolute effect 5% better (95% CI 5% worse to 15% better). Systemic corticosteroids may not improve function at short-term follow-up (standardized mean difference (SMD) 0.14 better; range 0.49 better to 0.21 worse) and probably increase the likelihood of improvement in function at short-term follow-up (RR 1.52, 95% CI 1.22 to 1.91; absolute effect 19% better, 95% CI 8% better to 30% better). Systemic corticosteroids were associated with greater improvement in function versus placebo at long-term follow-up (MD -7.40, 95% CI -12.55 to -2.25 on the 0 to 100 Oswestry Disability Index) and greater likelihood of functional improvement (RR 1.29, 95% CI 1.06 to 1.56), based on a single trial. There was no difference in likelihood of surgery (RR 1.00, 95% CI 0.68 to 1.47). Evidence indicated that systemic corticosteroids (administered as a single dose or as a short course of therapy) are not associated with increased risk of any adverse event, serious adverse events, withdrawal due to adverse events, or hyperglycemia, but estimates were imprecise as some trials did not report harms, and harms reporting was suboptimal in trials that did provide data. Limitations included variability across trials in interventions (e.g. corticosteroid used, dose and duration of treatment), clinical settings, and participants (e.g. duration of symptoms, methods for diagnosis); limited utility of subgroup analyses due to small numbers of trials; methodologic limitations or suboptimal reporting of methods by some trials; and too few trials to formally assess for publication bias using graphical or statistical tests for small sample effects. Non-radicular low back pain Evidence on systemic corticosteroids versus placebo for non-radicular pain was limited and suggested that systemic corticosteroids may be associated with slightly worse short-term pain but slightly better function. Spinal stenosis For spinal stenosis, limited evidence indicated that systemic corticosteroids are probably no more effective than placebo for short-term pain or function.
AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: Systemic corticosteroids appear to be slightly effective at improving short-term pain and function in people with radicular low back pain not due to spinal stenosis, and might slightly improve long-term function. The effects of systemic corticosteroids in people with non-radicular low back pain are unclear and systemic corticosteroids are probably ineffective for spinal stenosis. A single dose or short course of systemic corticosteroids for low back pain does not appear to cause serious harms, but evidence is limited.