We have assessed whether an epidural steroid injection is effective in the treatment of symptoms due to compression of a nerve root in the lumbar spine by carrying out a prospective, randomised, controlled trial in which patients received either an epidural steroid injection or an intramuscular injection of local anaesthetic and steroid. We assessed a total of 93 patients according to the Oxford pain chart and the Oswestry disability index and followed up for a minimum of two years. All the patients had been categorised as potential candidates for surgery. There was a significant reduction in pain early on in those having an epidural steroid injection but no difference in the long term between the two groups. The rate of subsequent operation in the groups was similar.