Corticosteroids (intra-articular) for osteoarthritis



Generic Name Brand Name
betamethasone Celestone
methylprednisolone Depo-Medrol
triamcinolone Aristospan, Kenalog

Intra-articular corticosteroids or steroids are medicines injected directly into the joint space of a painful, inflamed arthritic joint. Steroids taken by mouth (orally) are not used for osteoarthritis.

How It Works

Steroids are similar to natural substances produced by the body (hormones) that help reduce inflammation. If inflammation is not a symptom of your osteoarthritis, steroids are less likely to be helpful.

Steroids may be used to reduce inflammation in tendons and ligaments in osteoarthritic joints.

Why It Is Used

If a person has not improved with treatment using analgesics or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), an injection of corticosteroid into the joint can sometimes be helpful for short-term pain relief.

How Well It Works

Corticosteroids may relieve pain caused by osteoarthritis for a short amount of time (weeks to months).1

If corticosteroid injections are helpful, symptoms may improve for weeks to months. Some people get long-term relief of 6 months or more with a single cortisone shot. If you have a moderate amount of fluid in the joint, your chances of responding are probably better.

Side Effects

Corticosteroids are used with caution because of potential side effects. Side effects may include:

  • Increased pain the first day or two after a corticosteroid injection. Applying ice at home for 15 to 20 minutes after the injection may help reduce pain.
  • Tendon weakening and scarring, causing loss of strength and movement and potential for tendon rupture.
  • Accidental nerve injury during injection.
  • Skin color (pigmentation) changes.
  • Dimpling of the skin (subcutaneous atrophy).
  • Infection.

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

Common short-term side effects include:

Uncommon short-term side effects include:

Long-term side effects include:

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

What To Think About

There are several issues to think about with steroid injections for osteoarthritis.

The standard of practice is that steroid injections should be given only 3 or 4 times a year in a single joint area.

A small study suggests that injections every 3 months for up to 2 years is safe and effective in reducing symptoms of osteoarthritis.2

Injection of any substance into a joint or tendon has a very small risk of harm, including damage to a tendon, ligament, or nerve; bleeding into the tissue; or infection. Although these rarely happen, your doctor will probably mention the possibilities to you before an injection into a joint.

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  1. Intra-articular injections for osteoarthritis of the knee (2006). Medical Letter on Drugs and Therapeutics, 48(1231): 25–27.
  2. Raynauld JP, et al. (2002). Safety and efficacy of long-term intraarticular steroid injections in osteoarthritis of the knee. Arthritis and Rheumatism, 48(2): 370–377.

Last Updated: April 17, 2009

Author: Shannon Erstad, MBA/MPH

Medical Review: Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine & Richa Dhawan, MD - Rheumatology

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