Discitis Osteomyelitis

Discitis osteomyelitis is an infection that affects the spine.  Imaging tests are commonly used to diagnose this infection.  This article will cover the symptoms, causes, imaging and treatment options for discitis osteomyelitis.

What is Discitis Osteomyelitis?

Discitis osteomyelitis is an infection that involves the intervertebral discs and the adjacent vertebrae. It typically occurs when bacteria or fungi spread to the spine through the bloodstream, leading to inflammation and infection. This condition can cause severe pain and may lead to long-term complications if not treated promptly.

Symptoms of Discitis Osteomyelitis

Identifying the symptoms of discitis osteomyelitis early is important for effective treatment. Here are some common signs to watch for:

Severe Back Pain

One of the most common symptoms of discitis osteomyelitis is intense back pain. The pain often starts gradually and worsens over time. It may be localized to the infected area or spread to other parts of the back.

Fever and Chills

Since discitis osteomyelitis is an infection, it often causes fever and chills. These symptoms indicate that the body is trying to fight off the infection.

Fatigue and Weakness

Patients with discitis osteomyelitis may feel unusually tired and weak. This fatigue can be debilitating and interfere with daily activities.

Difficulty Moving

Inflammation and pain in the spine can make it difficult to move or perform regular tasks. Patients might find it challenging to bend, twist, or even walk.

Causes of Discitis Osteomyelitis

Understanding the causes of discitis osteomyelitis can help in preventing the condition. Here are the primary factors that can lead to this spinal infection:

Bacterial Infections

Most cases of discitis osteomyelitis are caused by bacterial infections. Staphylococcus aureus is the most common bacterium responsible for this condition. Bacteria can enter the bloodstream through wounds, surgical procedures, or infections in other parts of the body and then travel to the spine.

Fungal Infections

In some rare cases, fungal infections can also cause discitis osteomyelitis. These infections are more common in individuals with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS or patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Post-Surgical Complications

Surgical procedures involving the spine can sometimes lead to discitis osteomyelitis. Infection can occur if bacteria enter the surgical site during or after the procedure.

Diagnosing Discitis Osteomyelitis

Accurate diagnosis is essential for the effective treatment of discitis osteomyelitis. Here are the common methods used for diagnosing this condition:

Physical Examination

A healthcare provider will start with a thorough physical examination, assessing the patient’s back pain, mobility, and overall health.

Blood Tests

Blood tests are often used to detect signs of infection, such as elevated white blood cell counts and increased inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein (CRP) and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR).


Imaging plays an important role in diagnosing discitis osteomyelitis because it provides clear, detailed pictures of the spine’s internal structures. These images help doctors to:

1. Identify the Infection Site: Determine the exact location of the infection within the spine.
2. Assess the Extent of Damage: Evaluate the extent of inflammation and damage to the intervertebral discs and adjacent vertebrae.
3. Monitor Treatment Progress: Track changes in the spine during and after treatment to ensure the infection is resolving.
4. Plan Surgical Interventions: Guide surgeons in planning procedures if surgery is necessary.

Common Imaging Techniques for Discitis Osteomyelitis

Several imaging techniques are used to diagnose discitis osteomyelitis, each with its unique benefits. Let’s explore these methods in detail:


X-rays are often the first imaging test performed when discitis osteomyelitis is suspected. While they are less detailed than other imaging methods, X-rays can reveal significant changes in the bones and the spaces between the vertebrae, such as:

• Bone Erosion: Loss of bone density and structure in the affected vertebrae.
• Disc Space Narrowing: Reduction in the height of the intervertebral discs due to infection and inflammation.

X-rays are quick, widely available, and cost-effective, making them a useful initial diagnostic tool.

MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)

MRI is the gold standard for diagnosing discitis osteomyelitis due to its superior ability to visualize soft tissues, including intervertebral discs and spinal cord structures. MRI uses powerful magnets and radio waves to produce detailed images of the spine. Key benefits of MRI include:

• High-Resolution Images: Provides detailed images of the discs, vertebrae, and surrounding tissues.
• Early Detection: Can detect early signs of infection before significant damage occurs.
• Detailed Inflammation Assessment: Shows the extent of inflammation and any abscess formation.

MRI is particularly useful for identifying discitis osteomyelitis in its early stages and guiding treatment decisions.

CT (Computed Tomography) Scans

CT scans use X-rays to create cross-sectional images of the spine, providing more detail than standard X-rays. CT scans are beneficial for:

• Bone Detail: Offering clear images of the bone structure and any bone destruction caused by the infection.
• Guiding Biopsies: Assisting in needle placement for biopsies to obtain tissue samples from the infected area.

Bone Scans

Bone scans involve injecting a small amount of radioactive material into the bloodstream. This material accumulates in areas of high bone activity, such as sites of infection. A special camera then detects the radiation to create images of the bones. Bone scans can:

• Detect Infection Spread: Identify areas of infection that may not be visible on X-rays or CT scans.
• Assess Treatment Response: Monitor how well the infection is responding to treatment.

Bone scans are particularly useful for detecting infections that have spread to multiple areas of the spine.

How Imaging Guides Treatment

Imaging is not just about diagnosing discitis osteomyelitis; it also plays an important role in guiding treatment. Here’s how:

• Determining the Severity: Imaging helps assess the severity of the infection, which influences the treatment plan. For instance, extensive bone destruction may necessitate surgical intervention.
• Monitoring Progress: Repeated imaging studies during treatment help monitor the infection’s response to antibiotics or antifungal medications, ensuring the treatment is effective.
• Planning Surgery: If surgery is required, detailed imaging provides vital information to surgeons, helping them plan the procedure with precision to remove infected tissue or stabilize the spine.


In some cases, a biopsy may be performed to obtain a sample of the infected tissue. This sample is then analyzed to identify the specific type of bacteria or fungi causing the infection, which helps guide the appropriate treatment.

Treatment Options for Discitis Osteomyelitis

Treating discitis osteomyelitis typically involves a combination of medications and, in some cases, surgery. Here are the main treatment options:


Antibiotics are the primary treatment for bacterial discitis osteomyelitis. The choice of antibiotic depends on the specific bacteria identified in the biopsy or blood tests.

Antifungal Medications

If the infection is caused by fungi, antifungal medications will be prescribed. These medications also need to be taken for an extended period to effectively treat the infection.

Pain Management

Managing pain is an important aspect of treating discitis osteomyelitis. Doctors may prescribe pain relievers, anti-inflammatory drugs, and sometimes steroids to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain.


In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to remove infected tissue, drain abscesses, or stabilize the spine. Surgical intervention is typically considered when there is no improvement with medical treatment, or when there is significant spinal instability or neurological impairment.


Discitis osteomyelitis is a serious condition that requires prompt diagnosis and treatment. Understanding the symptoms, causes, imaging and treatment options can help in managing the condition effectively and improving the chances of a full recovery. If you suspect you or someone you know may have discitis osteomyelitis, seek medical attention immediately to receive the necessary care and support.

Disclaimer: The content of this website is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as, nor should it be considered a substitute for, professional medical advice. Do not use the information on this website for diagnosing or treating any medical or health condition. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider.

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