What is discitis?

Discitis is inflammation of the intervertebral discs, or the spongy discs between the vertebrae, usually caused by infection. In most cases, only a single disk is affected, although the infection can spread to adjacent disks. The condition is rare, but it occurs more often in children than in adults. Children between the ages of two and seven are more likely to develop 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 usually caused by an infection in another part of the body that enters the spine through the bloodstream. Rarely, the infection can spread from the bones to the disc. Many cases develop after an invasive procedure, such as a lumbar puncture. This is most likely due to microorganisms being introduced into the body from the procedure, leading to infection.

In some cases, a chemical reaction may be to blame for spinal discitis. A cortisone injection into the spine can cause the discs to swell in some people. Severe back trauma can also cause swelling.

The most common discitis symptoms include moderate to severe low back pain, pain radiating to other areas of the body, tenderness around the spine, inability to bend the spine, and pain aggravation 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 an infection, a headache and mild 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 doctor may suspect the condition and begin testing to confirm the diagnosis. A physical exam 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 usually involves taking various medications, including antibiotics, to treat the underlying cause of the infection. Steroids may be given if the condition does not improve with antibiotic treatment. Pain relievers are often prescribed, and in some cases, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs 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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