Background: As part of a comprehensive nonsurgical approach, epidural injections often are used in the management of lumbar disc herniation. Recent guidelines and systematic reviews have reached different conclusions about the efficacy of epidural injections in managing lumbar disc herniation.
Questions/purposes: In this systematic review, we determined the efficacy (pain relief and functional improvement) of the three anatomic approaches (caudal, lumbar interlaminar, and transforaminal) for epidural injections in the treatment of disc herniation.
Methods: We performed a literature search from 1966 to June 2013 in PubMed, Cochrane library, US National Guideline Clearinghouse, previous systematic reviews, and cross-references for trials studying all types of epidural injections in managing chronic or chronic and subacute lumbar disc herniation. We wanted only randomized controlled trials (RCTs) (either placebo or active controlled) to be included in our analysis, and 66 studies found in our search fulfilled these criteria. We then assessed the methodologic quality of these 66 studies using the Cochrane review criteria for RCTs. Thirty-nine studies were excluded, leaving 23 RCTs of high and moderate methodologic quality for analysis. Evidence for the efficacy of all three approaches for epidural injection under fluoroscopy was strong for short-term (< 6 months) and moderate for long-term (≥ 6 months) based on the Cochrane rating system with five levels of evidence (best evidence synthesis), with strong evidence denoting consistent findings among multiple high-quality RCTs and moderate evidence denoting consistent findings among multiple low-quality RCTs or one high-quality RCT. The primary outcome measure was pain relief, defined as at least 50% improvement in pain or 3-point improvement in pain scores in at least 50% of the patients. The secondary outcome measure was functional improvement, defined as 50% reduction in disability or 30% reduction in the disability scores.
Results: Based on strong evidence for short-term efficacy from multiple high-quality trials and moderate evidence for long-term efficacy from at least one high quality trial, we found that fluoroscopic caudal, lumbar interlaminar, and transforaminal epidural injections were efficacious at managing lumbar disc herniation in terms of pain relief and functional improvement.
Conclusions: The available evidence suggests that epidural injections performed under fluoroscopy by trained physicians offer improvement in pain and function in well-selected patients with lumbar disc herniation.