Discitis

Written by Seth Stoltzfus and Marijane Leonard
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What is Discitis?

Discitis, sometimes spelled diskitis, affects the discs between individual bones of the spine (vertebrae). Swelling in the small spaces between these bones (the intervertebral disc spaces) puts pressure on the discs and causes pain. Discitis is relatively uncommon, and it mostly affects young children.

This condition often goes together with another called osteomyelitis, which involves infection of bone or bone marrow. Discitis is one of several kinds of spinal infection and inflammation. The spine’s surrounding tissue, joints, and vertebrae can also become irritated and inflamed.

Causes of Discitis

This condition can stem from a viral or bacterial infection. It can also be the result of an autoimmune disorder. The swelling and inflammation of discitis causes back pain and other symptoms.

Who Is at High Risk for Discitis?

The following people can have a higher risk for discitis:

  • children under age 10
  • those who have autoimmune disorders
  • individuals with weak immune systems
  • intravenous drug users
  • anyone with a higher risk of infection
  • post-surgery patients

Symptoms of Discitis

If you are suffering from discitis, you will probably have significant pain in part of your spine. The lower and upper back are often affected. Other symptoms may include:

  • abdominal pain or discomfort
  • changes in posture
  • fever
  • stiffness or discomfort in the back
  • problems performing regular mobility tasks

Diagnosing Discitis

Bone Scans

Your doctor may use a bone scan to look at the actual vertebrae and the spaces around them. A bone scan tests the vitality of a bone. In order to accurately see inside your bones, your doctor will need to inject radioactive material into a vein. A camera records the radiation as it works its way around bones and organs. This test can show your doctor whether you have a bone infection.

Blood Tests

Your doctor may also order blood tests to diagnose discitis. One of these is a complete blood count (CBC), a very common blood test that counts the numbers of red and white blood cells in the blood, as well as other basic measurements. This test can help diagnose infection. Your doctor may also use a blood test called an erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) to measure inflammation.

Radiology

Your doctor may also order radiological tests, including:

  • X-ray
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

These tests can give doctors more information about what’s happening in the spine and surrounding areas. Infection and inflammation can move from one area to another.

In some cases, a doctor may order a biopsy of spinal tissue to get a sample and learn more about discitis and related issues.

Treating Discitis

If you are diagnosed with discitis, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics (for an infection) or anti-inflammatory medications (for an autoimmune disease). Steroids are a secondary choice. These may be prescribed for significant or chronic cases of discitis. For pain, you may receive medications called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Your doctor may also recommend the following:

  • changes to daily activities
  • bed rest
  • back brace or support equipment

In some cases of discitis, especially in adults, a doctor may recommend more invasive treatments. Sometimes, surgery is necessary to resolve problems stemming from discitis and osteomyelitis. Doctors may need to reconstruct areas of the spine for healthy function and mobility.

Long-Term Outlook for Discitis

Because discitis is the result of an infection that may be bacterial or viral, medical professionals generally expect patients to recover from the condition. For cases that involve an underlying autoimmune problem, doctors will focus on treating that issue, which may be more persistent than the discitis.

Although rare, chronic back pain is one complication associated with discitis. You might also experience unpleasant side effects from medications. Any increases in pain levels after initial treatment will likely require a follow-up visit and additional treatments.

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