Back pain investigations (discography)

What is a discography?

The spine is made up of bones called vertebrae. Between the vertebrae are small round pads of tissue, with a soft jelly-like centre called discs. They act as shock absorbers to protect the bones. Your discs can become worn and either bulge out from between the vertebrae or burst and leak fluid. This condition is commonly known as a “herniated” disc.

You may also have had tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans to identify and check the structure of the damaged disc or discs.

Discography is less about what the disc looks like and more about determining if the disc is painful. This test is usually only done if other treatments have failed and back surgery is being considered. The aim of the test is to pinpoint which disc, if any, is causing your back or leg pain, so your surgeon can plan the appropriate treatment.

Discography is routinely done as an out-patient or day-case procedure with sedation. Sedative drugs relieve anxiety and help you relax without putting you to sleep. You will also be given a local anaesthetic to numb the skin on your back.

Your surgeon will explain the potential benefits and risks of having this test, and will also discuss any alternatives to the procedure.

About the discography procedure

The test takes about 45 minutes to complete and is usually done in the X–ray department. A thin hollow needle will be carefully inserted into the area of your back that feels painful. More than one disc may be investigated at once so several needles may be put in. The procedure can be uncomfortable because the needles are being inserted in an area that is already painful. If you feel any pain in your leg whilst the needle is being inserted, please tell your surgeon immediately.

During the procedure, your surgeon will take X-ray pictures to ensure the needle is correctly placed. When the needles are in place, a second thin needle is passed through the first one and into the centre of the disc. Contrast (a liquid that shows up on X-ray) is injected into the centre of each disc. As this is being done, you will be asked to rate any pain you feel on a scale of 0 to 10.

A local anaesthetic or steroid may be injected into the affected disc to help relieve pain. At the end of the test the needles are removed. The injection site may be covered with a plaster. You might have a CT scan so that your surgeon can see if the contrast has spread. Your surgeon will advise you about this.

After the test, you may have some bruising, swelling and pain at the injection site. You will be given painkillers to help with this.

Your surgeon will review your test results and explain them to you at your follow-up meeting. The test will hopefully give a better understanding of your back problem and your surgeon will offer suitable advice and treatment.

Discography is usually performed if back surgery is being considered. It is generally a safe procedure. For most people, the benefits of having a clear diagnosis are greater than any disadvantages. However, all medical procedures carry an element of risk.

Complications of discography are rare but can be serious. They include the following. 

  • Disc infection. Symptoms are intense pain and fever. You will usually be given antibiotics before the test to help prevent infection.
  • Inflammation of the nerves in your spine, damage to nerves or tendons and bleeding into the spinal cord near the discs being injected. This can cause numbness in areas of the back or limbs.

The chance of complications depends on the exact type of procedure you are having and other factors such as your general health. You should ask your surgeon to explain how any risks apply to you.

Are discography (back pain investigations) available on the NHS?

Discographies are currently being restricted by the NHS in some areas of the UK and waiting lists are becoming significantly longer. For these reasons many people opt for private discographies so that they can investigate the cause of their back pain more quickly.

Why should I consider having a discography at a Spire hospital?

Whether you have medical insurance or are paying for your treatment yourself, with Spire Healthcare you will be seen quickly by the consultant-grade surgeon of your choice at a time that suits you. You will be treated in a premium private hospital with some of the UK's highest standards of cleanliness and infection control.

To find out more about having a discography privately or to get a guide price, simply

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