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A controlled trial of corticosteroid injections into facet joints for chronic low back pain.

BACKGROUND: Chronic low back pain is a common problem with many treatments, few of which have been rigorously evaluated. This randomized, placebo-controlled trial was designed to evaluate the efficacy of injections of corticosteroid into facet joints to treat chronic low back pain.

METHODS: Patients with chronic low back pain who reported immediate relief of their pain after injections of local anesthetic into the facet joints between the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae and the fifth lumbar and first sacral vertebrae were randomly assigned to receive under fluoroscopic guidance injections of either methylprednisolone acetate (20 mg; n = 49) or isotonic saline (n = 48) in the same facet joints. Ninety-five patients were followed for six months and their condition assessed with scales of pain severity, back mobility, and limitation of function.

RESULTS: After one month, none of the outcome measures evaluating pain, functional status, and back flexion differed clinically or statistically between the two study groups. Forty-two percent of the patients who received methylprednisolone and 33 percent of those who received placebo reported marked or very marked improvement (95 percent confidence interval for the difference, -11 to 28 percentage points; P = 0.53). The results were similar after three months. At the six-month evaluation, the patients treated with methylprednisolone reported more improvement, less pain on the visual-analogue scale, and less physical disability. The differences were reduced, however, when concurrent interventions were taken into account. Moreover, only 11 patients (22 percent) in the methylprednisolone group and 5 (10 percent) in the placebo group had sustained improvement from the first month to the sixth month (95 percent confidence interval for the difference, -2 to 26; P = 0.19).

CONCLUSIONS: We conclude that injecting methylprednisolone acetate into the facet joints is of little value in the treatment of patients with chronic low back pain.

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