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What is Discitis?

By C. Ausbrooks
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Discitis is the inflammation of the inter-vertebral discs, or the spongy discs between vertebrae, typically caused by an infection. In most cases, only a single disc is affected, although the infection can spread to adjacent discs. The condition is rare, but occurs more frequently in children than in adults. Children between the ages of two and seven are most prone to developing discitis. It is extremely rare in elderly patients, as the discs become smaller, less spongy, and less likely to become inflamed with age.

Discitis is typically caused by an infection in another part of the body that enters the spine through the bloodstream. Rarely, the infection may spread from the bones to the disc. Many cases develop after an invasive procedure such as a lumbar puncture. This is most likely because of the introduction of microorganisms into the body from the procedure, which leads to infection.

In some cases, a chemical reaction may be to blame for vertebral discitis. A cortisone injection into the spine can cause the discs to become inflamed in some individuals. Severe trauma to the back may also cause inflammation.

The most common discitis symptoms include moderate to severe pain in the lower back, radiation of pain to other areas of the body, tenderness around the spine, the inability to bend the spine and aggravation of pain with movement. In children, symptoms may include lethargy, inability to walk, leaning forward while walking or difficulty standing up from a sitting position. If the condition is caused by infection, headache and a slight fever may also be present.

Discitis can be difficult to diagnose. If a patient experiences sudden back pain for no apparent reason or exhibits common symptoms, a physician may suspect the condition and begin testing to confirm the diagnosis. A physical examination is followed by a blood test known as an Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate (ESR) test. This test checks the blood for an elevated sedimentation rate, which indicates that an infection is present.

Discitis treatment typically consists of taking various medications, including antibiotics, to treat the underlying cause of the infection. Steroids may be administered if the condition does not improve with antibiotic treatment. Pain relievers are often prescribed, and in some cases, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications are used to reduce pain. Bed rest is also recommended for most patients suffering from discitis. Patients should fully recover after treatment without any long-term side effects.

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Discussion Comments

By anon320247 — On Feb 16, 2013

My husband has discitis and has had a spinal abscess drained and two discs removed. He is now recovering after nearly seven weeks in the hospital. What are the chances of the abscess filling up again? This happened 30 days after having an injection for back pain.

By anon272617 — On Jun 02, 2012

My mum died of endocarditis of the heart. She had a bone scan which showed osteomyelitis/discitis in the T10/11. She had chronic back pain for over three years. We had tried to get her GP,s back specialists to listen to no avail. She died in August 2011.

Thank you for providing me with information. --Kathy

By Farah1 — On Jun 30, 2011

Thanks for writing this article. Although I am not an expert, I have some experience working with cases of discitis amongst patients. I am currently an undergraduate student, and I intern with a brain and spinal surgeon.

The surgeon I work under has had to deal with cases of discitis in adults. I recently read somewhere that one to two percent of patients who undergo spinal surgery develop an infection that causes discitis. Although this may seem like a small number, the surgeon I work for deals with this infection at least a few times a year.

The patient usually comes back into the office after complaining about back issues. A MRI or a CT scan can diagnose discitis, but a blood test is taken to ensure that there is an infection.

I have learned a lot about the spine through studying discitis and other spinal conditions. The spine is a very resilient organ of the body. But when it is compromised, it literally affects the foundation and integrity of a patient.

By Testy — On Jun 29, 2011

My six year old daughter was in a pretty bad accident on her tricycle. She was turning a corner on a street, and a car hit her. Thankfully she was not hurt too bad and has fully recovered since then.

I took her to the doctor as soon as it happened, and he said that she was fine. But a few days afterward, she started complaining that her back was hurting, and I noticed that she was walking funny. I took her back to the doctor, and he said that part of her spine was swollen. Discitis was the cause.

He gave her some medicine to reduce the swelling and pain. Thankfully she did not have an infection. Although she is fine now, I wish the doctor had warned us that she could have possibly develop this severe swelling. We could have worked to prevent it from happening, and my daughter would not have had to go through so much pain.

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