How are steroids given?

Steroid medications are available in several forms that vary in how easily they dissolve or how long they stay in the body.

Steroids may be given systemically, which means throughout the system or body, or locally to the precise place where a problem exists.

Systemic steroids can be given either through a vein (intravenously), into a muscle (intramuscularly) or by mouth (orally). Local steroids can be given as eye drops, ear drops, or skin creams and by direct injection into joints, bursae (lubricating sacs between certain tendons and the bones beneath them), or around tendons or other soft tissue areas.

The steroid is injected with a syringe and small needle into the targeted area. There is generally some form of anesthesia beforehand with lidocaine or a spray. Some brief and typically minor pain with the procedure is common. The degree of pain will vary on the location of the shot and the individual patient.

When should steroid injections not be used?

Steroids should not be injected when there is an infection in the area to be injected or elsewhere in the body. If a joint is already severely destroyed, injections are not likely to help.

Before a joint is injected with a steroid, joint fluid may be removed for testing. Testing the joint fluid is especially important if the diagnosis is uncertain. Steroid injections often reduce joint inflammation, helping preserve joint structure and function.

If a patient has a potential bleeding problem or is taking anticoagulants (often referred to as blood thinners), steroid injections may cause bleeding at the site. For these patients, injections are only given with great caution.

Frequent steroid injections, more often than once every three or four months, are not recommended because of the increased risk of weakening tissues in the treated area.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/20/2020.

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