What is discitis?

Discitis, or diskitis, is inflammation that develops between the intervertebral discs of your spine. These discs are located between your vertebrae. The spaces between them are called intervertebral disc spaces. Swelling in these spaces can put pressure on the discs, leading to pain.

Discitis is relatively uncommon. It mostly affects young children. It often accompanies another condition called osteomyelitis. This is an infection that can affect your bones and bone marrow.

Discitis is one of several kinds of spinal inflammation. Your spine’s surrounding tissues, joints, and vertebrae can also become irritated and inflamed.

If you have discitis, you’ll likely have significant pain in part of your spine. Your lower and upper back may be affected. Other symptoms can include:

  • changes in your posture
  • stiffness in your back
  • difficulty performing regular mobility tasks
  • abdominal pain or discomfort
  • fever

Viral or bacterial infections can cause discitis. An autoimmune disorder can also cause it. The infection or autoimmune response leads to swelling and inflammation, which results in pain and other symptoms.

You’re more likely to develop discitis if:

  • you have an autoimmune disorder
  • you have a weakened immune system
  • you use intravenous drugs
  • you’re recovering from surgery

Children under age 10 are also more likely to develop this condition.

Your doctor may use a number of different tests and tools to diagnose discitis, including:

  • blood tests
  • bone scans
  • X-rays
  • MRIs
  • tissue analysis

Blood tests

Your doctor may order blood tests to help diagnose discitis. They’ll collect a sample of your blood to send to a laboratory for analysis. Lab technicians can use a variety of tests to check for signs of infection.

For example, a complete blood count is a very common blood test. Lab technicians can use it to count the numbers of red and white blood cells in your blood. That can help them identify signs of infection, including elevated levels of white blood cells. They can also use an erythrocyte sedimentation rate test to look for signs of inflammation.

Bone scans

Your doctor may use a bone scan to examine your vertebrae and the spaces around them. It can help them assess the vitality of the bone and learn if you have a bone infection.

A nurse or technician will inject radioactive material into one of your veins to conduct the scan. It will travel through your blood and collect in your bones, especially in areas where bone is growing or breaking down. They’ll ask you to lie down on a special table where a scanning machine and camera will move over your body. The camera will track the radioactive material as it works its way through your body and bones.

Imaging tests

Your doctor may also order radiological imagining tests, such as an X-ray or MRI. These tests can create pictures of your spine and surrounding tissues. Infection and inflammation can potentially move from one area to another.

Tissue analysis

In some cases, your doctor may order a biopsy of your spinal tissue to collect a sample for analysis. This can help them develop their diagnosis.

If you’re diagnosed with discitis, your doctor will likely prescribe medications to treat it. For example, they may prescribe antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection or anti-inflammatory medications to treat an autoimmune reaction. In some cases, they may also prescribe steroids to help relieve severe or chronic cases of discitis. They may recommend nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, to help relieve pain.

Your doctor may also recommend the following:

  • bed rest
  • changes to your daily activities
  • wearing a back brace or other support equipment

In some cases of discitis, your doctor may recommend more invasive treatments. In rare cases, you may need surgery to resolve problems stemming from discitis and osteomyelitis. Your doctor may need to reconstruct areas of your spine to improve its function and your mobility.

The outlook for most people who have discitis is good. If you have a viral infection, it may heal on its own. If you have a bacterial infection, it will likely resolve with antibiotics. If an underlying autoimmune problem is causing your condition, your doctor will focus on diagnosing and treating that issue, which may be more persistent than your discitis.

Chronic back pain is a rare complication associated with discitis. You might also experience unpleasant side effects from the medications that you take to treat it. If your pain levels increase or return after your initial treatment, make an appointment with your doctor. You may need additional treatments.

Ask your doctor for more information about your specific condition, treatment plan, and long-term outlook.