ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Oh my aching back! Millions of Americans run to the pharmacy each year to fill a prescription of steroids for pain relief, but a recent study may lead patients as well as the doctors who prescribe these quick fixes to reconsider that option.
Researchers at the University of Michigan used a multipronged approach to study short-term steroid use and risks. They found that people who have taken corticosteroids sometime in the previous few months are more susceptible to broken bones, blood clots and sepsis (a serious blood infection) than those who have opted out of steroid use.
“Although physicians focus on the long-term consequences of steroids, they don’t tend to think about potential risks from short-term use,” says Akbar Waljee, an assistant professor of gastroenterology at the university and the study’s lead author, in a media release
For the study, researchers looked at insurance claims from 1.5 million non-elderly American adults. One in five patients had taken oral corticosteroids at some point over the three-year study period. Although the highest number of side effects were seen during the first 30 days, additional reactions remained high for three months, indicating a greater risk of long-term side effects from short-term use of steroids.
For the first part of the study, researchers considered three risks and their rate of occurrence in the first five to 90 days after steroid use. They found that those who had used steroids were more than twice as likely as non-users to go to a hospital for sepsis, almost twice as likely as non-users to develop a blood clot, and much more likely than non-users to suffer a fracture.
Researchers then looked at rates for short-term steroid users. In the 30 days after taking steroids versus the time before taking the medications, sepsis rates were five times higher, clot rates were more than three times higher, and fracture rates were nearly double what the rates were for non-users.
To give their research additional depth, they studied people with the same respiratory problem, comparing steroid users to non-users. The rates again were markedly different, with steroid users having five times the number of sepsis cases, almost three times the number of clots and two times the number of fractures.
“We need to understand that steroids do have a real risk and that we may use them more than we really need to. This is so important because of how often these drugs are used,” says Waljee.
The researchers believe that these compatible findings for all three approaches warrant concern because of the millions of times people are being prescribed steroids for one problem while being exposed to the chance of serious side effects in the following months.
The authors hope to raise awareness for both prescribers and patients about the possible overuse of short-term steroids. Waljee would like to see doctors prescribing “the smallest amount of corticosteroids possible based on the patient’s condition.”
If there are other choices, he believes prescribers should try that route instead of automatically prescribing steroids.
“Steroids may work faster, but they aren’t as risk-free as you might think,” he adds.
The study’s findings were published in the journal The BMJ.