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Cervical Discitis

What is Discitis?

Discitis is an infection of the human disc between the vertebrae of the spine.

Why do Discs get infected?

The spinal disc is a structure with very little blood supply. Most of the blood vessels are found on the outer layer of the disc (annulus fibrosus), but rarely deeper than that. The core of the disc (nucleus pulposus) usually does not have blood vessels at all. It is the largest such space in the human body which does not have blood vessels. This can lead to problems such as infection. Normally blood vessels are useful in preventing or treating infections. Using blood vessels, the body can send cells to treat or prevent infection. In the case of the spinal disc, not enough blood vessels are present to carry out this function. If bacteria enter the disc, they can often multiply and become a serious infection.

Who is at risk to develop Discitis?

The following are some situations where patients may develop discitis:

  1. Diabetic patients with poor control
  2. Patients who had a disc injection (discogram)
  3. Patients who had disc surgery
  4. Patients who have an infected vertebrae
  5. Patients who have depression of their immune system
  6. Patients who have an infection of the spine from recent spine surgery
  7. Children under the age of 8. Some children get discitis for no particular reason other than perhaps having an immature immune system.
  8. Patients with a severe urinary tract infection (UTI) or respiratory infection

What are some of the common symptoms of a Cervical Discitis?

Patients often experience severe neck pain and are quite debilitated. Any activity involving the neck can cause severe pain and spasticity. Small children may refuse to walk or arch their backs. Here are some additional symptoms:

  1. Severe neck pain
  2. Headaches
  3. Neck Spasms
  4. Fevers, chills
  5. Sweating, especially night sweats
  6. Fatigue (malaise)
  7. Lack of appetite (anorexia)

How do Spine Specialists diagnose a Cervical Discitis?

Spine specialists use information from the patient’s history, physical examination and special spine tests to make a diagnosis.

  1. History

A history of having severe neck pain, fevers, chills and sweats is suggestive of discitis. Having an infection in another part of the body or recent spine surgery can make it more likely to have this diagnosis.

      2. Physical Examination

Patients with discitis may appear ill in the later stage of the disease but may also appear otherwise normal early on. Pain with pressure on the spine can be very severe, more so than one would expect compared to other spine conditions. Patients may also refuse to move and prefer to lie down to rest their spine.

The vital signs may show a rapid pulse, fast breathing, as well as the presence of a fever.

Here are some of the examination points:

  1. Palpation (touch and pressure) of the spine
  2. Range of motion (mobility) of the neck
  3. Sensation testing of the legs
  4. Strength testing of the leg muscles (motor)
  5. Reflex testing of the leg muscles
  6. Gait testing
  7. Kernig’s test
  8. Valsalva test
  9. Babinski sign
  10. Lhermitt’s Sign
  11. Hoffman’s Sign

      3. Imaging

Spine images can often help make the diagnosis of discitis.

A. X-Rays

Plain X-Rays may be normal unless the infection involves a vertebra next to the disc and begins a destructive process. Sometimes a small amount of air can be seen in the space occupied by the disc which could suggest infection.

B. MRI Scans

MRI scans with intravenous contrast are usually the study of choice. The disc will often change color and show swelling around it. If the infection has spread to the vertebrae, this can also be verified by the MRI scan. Sometimes an abscess (collection of bacteria) in a space next to the disc can be seen as well (epidural abscess).

C. CT scans

CT scans are not very good at showing the disc itself, but like plain X-Rays can show signs suggesting infection. They can certainly show if the bone of the vertebrae next to the disc is infected.

4. Nuclear Bone scans

Bone scans can show discitis in a very obvious way, but are not typically the study of choice, since the details of the spinal anatomy cannot be seen clearly.

5. Biopsy

A biopsy of the disc can confirm the diagnosis and find the organism (bacteria). However this is not routinely done to avoid spreading the infection at the time of the needle placement or removal.

What is the treatment of a Cervical Discitis?

  1. Non-Surgical Care

The primary treatment of discitis is the use of intravenous (IV) antibiotics. Potent antibiotics are often given for long periods of time (up to 6 weeks or more).

The patient’s overall activity is usually restricted. However, some movement and frequent movement may have some benefit to allow the antibiotic to be more available to the disc. Here are some more non-surgical treatment options:

  1. Medications

a. Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDS)

b. Muscle Relaxants

c. Pain Killers

      2. Neck Brace

A brace may help by adding stability to the spine and limit the painful motion at the infected segment of the spine.

      3. Physical Therapy (PT)

PT can help keep the patient as mobile as possible to avoid loss of muscle mass. It may also be helpful to mobilize a patient.

      2. Surgical Care

Surgery is rarely needed for discitis. Exceptions are the presence of a severe involvement of the vertebrae next to the disc (osteomyelitis), potentially causing them to collapse. In this case the vertebrae may have to be partially removed and a metal cage inserted. Another scenario is the spread of the infection from the disc to the epidural space (Epidural Abscess) which could compress the spinal cord. This abscess may have to be surgically drained to avoid further complications.

Here are some surgical options which may be required for complications from Discitis:

  1. Cervical Corpectomy
  2. Cervical Laminectomy