Panel findings and recommendations:
- Discography is invasive, and its use is not recommended for assessing patients with low back pain. Interpretation is equivocal, and complications can be avoided with other noninvasive techniques.
(Strength of Evidence
- Due to increased potential risks, CT-discography is not recommended over other imaging studies (MRI, CT) for assessing patients with suspected nerve root compression due to lumbar disc hernia.
(Strength of Evidence
Discography involves the injection of a water-soluble imaging material directly into the nucleus pulposus of the disc. Information is then recorded about the amount of dye accepted, the pressure necessary to inject the material, the configuration of the opaque material, and the reproduction of the patient's pain. There are two diagnostic objectives: (1) to evaluate radiographically the extent of disc damage on discogram (sometimes with the addition of CT
) and (2) to characterize the pain response (if any) on disc injection to see if it compares with the typical pain of the patient. A symptomatic degenerative disc is considered one that disperses injected contrast in an abnormal pattern, extending to the outer margins of the annulus and possibly into epidural space as well. For many investigators, a painful reaction provoked in the patient that reproduces the patient's usual pain is required to classify the disc as abnormal. More recent data by Carragee et al, 1999-2000 and two more to be published negates the only supportive study in 1994 AHCPR Review. (See Discography Discussion
Of the 42 articles evaluated for this topic, only 1 met review criteria for adequate evidence about efficacy.324
Another article contained information used by the panel, although it did not meet article selection criteria.325
There were also two articles reviewed that evaluated results of discography in asymptomatic subjects.326
Evidence on Efficacy.
No studies were found that evaluated discography for patients with low back problems. One of the major problems in evaluating the literature on discography is that few studies evaluate discography using an independent reference standard. Instead, many studies either compare discography results with other diagnostic test findings or evaluate discography using pain provocation on disc injection as evidence of "discogenic pain," which essentially means using part of a test to validate itself.
In the only study to meet panel review criteria, Colhoun, McCall, Williams, et al.324
evaluated the results of discography using surgical findings and long-term clinical outcomes as independent "reference standards." This study evaluated discography in 195 patients with "persistent" low back pain (symptom duration not otherwise specified), but with no history of prior back surgery. All patients went on to have back surgery (spinal fusion for 82 percent of patients, laminectomy and/or discectomy for the remaining patients). All patients were followed for 2 to 10 years postoperatively (results not presented separately by type of operation). Patients who had spinal fusion were excluded from the study if the surgery was deemed to be technically unsuccessful (that is, if there was x-ray evidence of pseudoarthrosis at the site of attempted fusion). Treatment success on followup was noted in 89 percent of 137
patients who had positive pain response on discography and abnormal discograms, compared to 52 percent of 25 patients who had negative pain response but abnormal discograms and 50 percent of 12 patients who had a negative pain response and normal discography.
evaluated discograms done in 30 male prison inmate volunteers who had no prior history of low back problems, normal lumbar x-rays, and normal back examinations. Their age range was 21 to 49, average age 26. Discography was attempted at the L3-L4, L4-L5, and L5-S1 disc levels for each subject. Of the 71 successfully performed discograms, a positive pain response was noted in 37 percent of the discs injected. All of these also had abnormal discograms (showing either degenerative changes or disc rupture). The remaining 63 percent of discs injected had negative pain responses and normal discograms. Holt interpreted these results as showing a 37-percent false-positive rate for discograms. However, in a reevaluation of this study, Walsh, Weinstein, Spratt, et al.327
noted inconsistencies in Holt's data and recalculated the false-positive rate as either 26 percent or 4 percent depending upon assumptions made.
, Weinstein, Spratt, et al. 327
-discography done in 7 patients with low back pain and in 10 "asymptomatic" subjects with no history of low back problems. Discography was attempted at three lumbar disc levels for each subject, with a water-soluble nonionic contrast media. Disc injection was videotaped, and the subjects' pain reactions and discograms were later read independently by two orthopedic surgeons and three radiologists blind to all other data. Discography in the patients was considered positive if the discogram was abnormal, if there were two or more videotaped pain behaviors, and if disc injection provoked the patient's typical pain. In asymptomatic subjects, discography was considered positive if the discogram was abnormal and there was significant pain noted on disc injection. Discography was positive in all 7 patients with low back problems (65 percent of the 13 discs successfully injected being abnormal). In the asymptomatic subjects, 50 percent had an abnormal discogram (17 percent of the 30 successful discograms for this group), but none had positive pain response on disc injection. Therefore, none of the asymptomatic subjects was considered to have positive discography (that is, no false-positive tests). [Carragee et al, 1999-2000 reproduced this study with a more clinically relavent cohorts that questioned further the specificity. This series of papers addresses prior assumptions about safety, concordance of symptoms, HIZ findings and importance of chronicity and psychosocial problems. Two more studies found discography incapable of discriminating those unlimited by back symptoms from the disabled or predict future episodes and the other found Psychosocial was predictive of future episodes p=0.01 and disc disruption was not significant].
Potential Harms and Costs
. Discography is an invasive procedure with risk of complications. Potential complications include disc and disc space infections, disc herniation following disc injection, and significant amounts of ionizing radiation exposure with CT
-discography (estimated at 1.5 to 4.0 rads when studying 2-3 discs).325
Discography is expensive.
Summary of Findings.
Although discography seeks to identify internal changes in the disc based on evaluation of a discogram and pain response on disc injection, the disease process is not clear (the internal disc disruption), and how to use the information for low back problems is not clear. The main reason put forward for using discography appears to be to determine the levels at which spinal fusion will be successful in patients with persistent low back problems (due to discogenic disease). This assumes the controversial premise of a "painful disc syndrome" which has not yet been adequately documented.
There is no good evidence that discography is useful to promote better treatment outcomes in patients with low back problems. Colhoun, McCall, Williams, et al.324
noted more successful outcomes after back surgery for those with a positive discography, but these were presumably patients with chronic problems (as they had "persistent" pain). The rationale for using discography is to select patients who would most benefit from spinal fusion. Yet, in the Colhoun article, the predictive value of positive discography in establishing which patients do well after spinal fusion cannot be determined accurately because 18 percent of patients did not have fusions and outcomes were not reported separately for fusions and discectomies. Moreover, the two articles on discography in asymptomatic subjects report a substantial percentage of subjects who had positive discograms although they had never had low back problems.
In summary, there is limited evidence that discography can help select patients who would benefit from spinal fusion and no evidence that it is helpful in patients with low back problems. Potential serious risks from discography, including disc infection, have been identified. The use of discography or CT
-discography to diagnose herniated discs appears to offer no significant advantage over other imaging methods with less potential risk of harm
. See Discography
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