Common steroid medication used to treat the lower leg and back pain of sciatica due to a herniated disc is of questionable efficacy, researchers have found.

Many patients with sciatica endure substantial pain and disability. Oral steroids are often prescribed for patients who do not recover quickly. A study looked at a common oral steroid medication and its effectiveness in decreasing pain and improving function for patients with sciatica due to a herniated disc.

Researchers from Kaiser Permanente Northern California studied 269 patients who had sciatica due to a herniated disc. Two-thirds were given an oral steroid and the rest received a placebo. Patients were assessed for pain and overall function after three weeks, and again at one year.

The researchers found a small, statistically significant improvement in function, favouring the steroid group, but no difference in pain scores. The patients receiving steroids experienced more side-effects compared with the placebo group.