Epidural steroid injections can help athletes return after lumbar herniated discs

Note: I recently attended the 2012 American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Annual Meeting in San Francisco, California. In the next few weeks, I will present some of the important studies presented at its Specialty Day, presented by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.

Football wide receiver making a catch
Lumbar disc herniations can be a difficult problem in football players and all athletes.

Lumbar spine herniated discscan be a challenging problem in high-level athletes, especially college and professional football players. Repetitive hyperextension of the spine, direct contact, jumping, and twisting are all thought to be risk factors for herniated discs, putting athletes, and football players especially, at risk for these injuries.

Treatment of these lower back injuries can be difficult, because rest, physical therapy, other nonsurgical treatments often take a great deal of time before the athlete returns to play without symptoms. And while surgical removal of the disc can have good success in terms of returning to play, it is often a long recovery process. A new study presented at the Specialty Day of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Annual Meeting looks at the effectiveness of epidural steroid injections for lumbar herniated discs.

Aaron J. Krych, M.D. et al reviewed the records of 17 players from a single NFL football team from 2003 to 2010. 17 players suffered 27 distinct lumbar disc herniations. One of the team physicians evaluated each player after injury and assessed the player for neurologic defects and other exam findings as well as ordered x-rays and MRI’s. 37 epidural injections were performed for the 27 disc herniations at an average of four days from the injury.

The authors’ findings are encouraging for football players, as they showed that 89% of players returned to play after the injections, with an average loss of 2.8 practices and 0.6 games.  Tweet this statistic. Four players did require a repeat injection, and three of those four ultimately required surgical treatment. Of note, one of the factors associated with failure of the injection was weakness at the time of the physical examination. “These injections are a safe initial therapy in athletes that do not have neurological deficits, allows them to participate effectively in physical therapy sooner, and can significantly reduce the time a player misses,” Dr. Krych noted.

Football team warmupsChristopher A. Merrell, M.D., the Director of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Services for the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina, urges some caution about applying these results to the general population. “This fast-track treatment–getting an MRI the same week as onset of pain, and getting an injection within one week–is not typical of what most people get. For most, relative rest, ice, anti-inflammatories, and physical therapy will allow them to heal within 6 weeks. I certainly see the value in the authors’ protocol for professional athletes. It mirrors what we do at MUSC for the athletes that we treat,” says Dr. Merrell.

These findings provide reason for optimism for team physicians and athletes alike, as lumbar disc herniations can be a difficult injury in an athlete during the season. While epidural steroid injections might not always provide complete relief or guarantee successful return to play, they are felt to be safe. And potentially they could help to get a player through the season until a discectomy can be done in the offseason, if needed. While these results might not necessarily apply to the general population, and they don’t suggest that epidural injections should replace surgery as a treatment for all lumbar herniated discs, they can be utilized in pro athletes with a reasonable hope for successful return to play.

8 Responses to Epidural steroid injections can help athletes return after lumbar herniated discs

  1. I have sciatic pain from a bulged disc. I am training for a marathon. How long do I need to wait to run after a cortisone injection?

  2. I’m soon to be receiving a CT guided injection into my S1 nerve root to treat a protruding disc. Physio has told me that she doesn’t want me running for at least 8 weeks. Should i begin running earlier if I’m pain free?

  3. My son has been diagnosed with a slight tear in his L4-L5 and the disc is Bulging . He had one steroid injection one week ago and his pain has dropped to a 1 (on scale from 0-10) He is going into his senior year of football and basketball. He is heart broken and so tore up because he loves to train and play. What are his chances and is there hope he will not miss his senior year.

    • Many football players can successfully return to play with bulging lumbar discs. I don’t know that I can give you a specific prediction.

  4. I have a 13 year old son that has L5 S1 herniated disc no pain in his back only down left leg. He is unable to bend forward without pulling on his hamstrings, just walking and sitting causes pain down his leg for 6 weeks he has been laying on his side or back (in car, doctors office, etc..). We have done 2 steroid injections and now maybe a third. We are now on the right path and going to see a surgeon. My question is that will his disc ever be in good shape since he is 13 and still growing? My son is very active in football, competitive baseball and basketball. I do not want to put him at risk for this to happen to him in the future! Just thought I would ask your opinion.

    • It is hard to say, so you might ask his spine surgeon. Generally I don’t think discs regenerate and return to new.

  5. I have a herniated disc that is touching a nerve which is causing pain in my left leg to my ankle, I receive 3 epidural shots, and i received one on yesterday. Sir, when can I start running or walking,

Leave a reply

Please note: I cannot and will not provide specific medical information within these comments, just as I won't anywhere else. Also, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive, off-topic, or spam. If you have questions, please read My Comments Policy.

david-headshot I am an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston, South Carolina.

On this blog, on my podcast, and in articles for numerous publications and in media interviews, I aim to provide you leading commentary and education on injury treatment and prevention to keep you performing at your best! Learn more about me >>


I'm excited to help with information and interviews for print, radio, television, and online media. Media information >>


Writing I write articles and columns for a number of publications and organizations. Writing information >>
Sports Medicine Simplified: A Glossary of Sports Injuries, Treatments, Prevention and Much More

Learn more about the glossary >>
© 2016 Dr. David Geier Enterprises, LLC

Site Designed by Launch Yourself