Epidural Epidemic: Routine Pain Treatment Linked To Potential Complications

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Back pain: lots of folks have it and can be desperate for relief.

But for some people, a common treatment made things a lot worse, and now they’re speaking out.

A healthy person cannot imagine the pain of some patients who describe intense pain that shoots through their spine and legs, making life virtually unbearable.

And according to CBS2 Health Reporter Lisa Sigell, they say their suffering was caused by treatment itself: routine epidurals they received either for back pain or during childbirth.

West Covina pain specialist Forest Tennant is an expert on adhesive arachnoiditis, a condition in which trauma in and around the spinal cord causes nerves to swell and then stick together like overcooked spaghetti.

“It can be the worst pain that there is,” said Tenant.

Once thought to be a rare condition, Tenant says, it’s becoming more common, mainly because of the excess use of epidural injections.

Terri Anderson, who said she started getting epidural shots for a herniated disc, says she could hike 20 miles a day and ski black diamond slopes when she worked for the U.S. Forest Service.

She says while she did benefit from the shots at first, when the pain returned, she kept coming back for more.

Anderson says she’ll never forget her last epidural.

“I felt burning, fiery burning, that radiated down my leg,” said Anderson. “And I yelled out, ‘Something’s wrong, something’s not right.’ ”

That was five years ago, and the fiery feeling has never left, what Anderson described as “suicide-level pain.”

“I wish I had known this was a potential risk,” she said.

Millions of epidural shots are given every year, but what isn’t always obvious is that they’ve never been approved by the FDA.

Gary Snook used to be a contractor, and like Anderson, he was active until he received his fourth epidural.

“After that, my pain went ballistic, unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” said Snook.

When it didn’t go away, Snook says, the doctor wanted him to get a series of 48 epidural steroid injections.

But when Snook refused, he says, they dropped him as a patient.

In fact, Snook, Anderson and others say they’ve been denied treatment for pain after refusing to get more epidurals.

The FDA recently re-examined the safety of epidural steroid injections for back pain and issued the following warning: “Serious neurological events, some resulting in death have been reported. The safety and effectiveness … have not been established.”

And epidural steroid shots aren’t the only cause of arachnoiditis.

Marjorie says she became disabled by an epidural she received during childbirth, one that didn’t contain steroids.

“I don’t know if he hit the spinal cord,” she said.

Permanent damage cause by labor epidurals is exceedingly rare, and as for steroid shots used for pain, even Tennant acknowledges they often do the trick.

“One or two or three epidurals might be fine,” said Tennant. “But we have people in this country that have sustained 10, 20, 100 of these injections.”

Tennant added he believes anyone receiving eight or more injections will see some inflammation “that set you up to get arachnoiditis later.”

Experts say there are a few precautions you can take to increase epidural safety:

1. Make sure your doctor is board certified in pain management.
2. Ask about X-ray guidance.
3. Tell your doctor if you have diabetes or take aspirin, both of which can increase the risk of complications.

For the latest New England Journal of Medicine reports on Epidural Risks, click here.

Produced By Gerri Shaftel Constant, CBS2 medical producer.

More from Lisa Sigell
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