Oral steroids, or corticosteroids, are anti-inflammatory medications for patients for whom non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications have failed as a treatment choice. Steroids are most commonly prescribed to alleviate severe muscle inflammation, arthritic pain and allergic reactions, among other symptoms. Corticosteroids are also occasionally prescribed to patients who experience lower back pain and radiculopathy. A large number of undesirable side effects accompany steroid therapy.
The benefits of oral steroids
Oral steroids interact with muscle tissues in the body to regulate protein synthesis and reduce inflammation. These medications may be recommended to patients with arthritis of the spine and other degenerative joint conditions. Additionally, corticosteroids can be prescribed to patients who are experiencing sciatica, a pinched nerve and other spinal conditions because of the drug’s potent anti-inflammatory properties. Oral steroids are usually taken regularly by the patient over a short period of time and are available in a variety of doses, depending on the patient’s condition.
Potential risks of oral steroids
Steroids are powerful drugs that can cause potentially serious side effects if they are not used correctly. Some side effects are seen with every administration of oral steroids. However, most side effects are rare when oral steroids are used in the short term. The longer steroids are used the more likely side effects become apparent. Side effects include:
• Diminished appetite or rapid weight gain
• Vision problems
• Stomach pain, ulceration and gastrointestinal bleeding
• Increased menstrual cramps
• Wounds that do not heal
• Confusion or mood swings
• Heart palpitations
• Bone decalcification leading to more rapid osteoporosis
• Tendon and ligament rupture
• Increased susceptibility to infection
• Reactivation of infection that has remained dormant, such as tuberculosis or shingles
• Swelling caused by fluid retention (which may contribute to heart failure and worsen blood pressure control)
• Increased blood sugar and potential generation of diabetes
• Muscle wasting
• Increased skin friability and tearing
• Increased skin pigmentation particularly when exposed to sunlight
Additionally, corticosteroids are not typically recommended for children. Oral steroids can affect the growth of the adrenal glands and bone growth as well as make infections more troublesome. Furthermore, oral steroids can affect blood sugar levels, which can be difficult for patients with diabetes.