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Steroids to treat arthritis

Corticosteroids, often just called steroids, may be a treatment option for arthritis inflammation of joints and bones.

Steroids may be given as a cream or gel, as a tablet or by injection into or near a joint.

How do steroids work?

Steroids decrease inflammation and reduce the activity of the immune system.

Inflammation is a process by which the body's white blood cells and chemicals protect the body against infection and foreign substances such as bacteria and viruses. However in certain diseases the body's defence system (immune system) doesn't function properly and is overactive. This may cause inflammation to work against the body's own tissues and cause tissue damage. Inflammation is characterised by redness, warmth, swelling and pain.

Steroids reduce the production of inflammatory chemicals, which minimises tissue damage. Steroids also reduce the activity of the immune system by affecting the function of white blood cells.

What conditions are treated with steroids?

Steroids are used to treat a variety of conditions in which the body's defence system malfunctions and causes tissue damage. Steroids are used as the main treatment for certain inflammatory conditions such as systemic vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels) and myositis (inflammation of muscle). They may also be used selectively to treat inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Sjögren's syndrome or gout.

What are the benefits of steroids?

When inflammation threatens to damage critical body organs, steroids can save organs and in many instances can be life-saving. For example they may help prevent the progression of kidney inflammation, which can lead to kidney failure in people who have lupus or vasculitis. For these people steroid therapy may eliminate the need for kidney dialysis or transplantation.

Low doses of steroids may provide significant relief from pain and stiffness for people with conditions including rheumatoid arthritis. Temporary use of higher doses of steroids may help a person recover from a severe flare-up of arthritis.

Why are steroids injected?

Injecting steroids into one or two areas of inflammation allows doctors to deliver a high dose of medication directly to the problem area. When doctors give steroids by mouth or in a vein, they cannot be sure an adequate amount will eventually reach the problem area.

What conditions are treated with steroid injections?

Steroids are often injected directly into joints to treat conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, gout or other inflammatory diseases. They also can be injected into inflamed bursae or around tendons near most joints in the body.

Some people report relief from osteoarthritis when steroids are injected directly into swollen or painful joints.

What are the expected benefits of steroid injections?

Injections into a specific area are generally well tolerated and are less likely than other forms of steroid medications to produce serious side effects. Also, the injections may help avoid the need for oral steroids or increased doses of oral steroids, which could have greater side effects.

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