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Lumbar Discography: A Comprehensive Review of Outcome Studies, Diagnostic Accuracy, and Principles
  1. Steven P. Cohen, M.D.,
  2. Thomas M. Larkin, M.D.,
  3. Steven A. Barna, M.D.,
  4. William E. Palmer, M.D.,
  5. Andrew C. Hecht, M.D. and
  6. Milan P. Stojanovic, M.D.
  1. Pain Management Center, Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Baltimore, MD; Pain Management Center, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, DC; MGH Pain Center, Dept. of Anaesthesia and Critical Care, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA; Department of Anesthesiology, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, DC; epartment of Radiology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA; Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY
  1. Reprints: Steven P. Cohen, M.D., Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine, Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, 550 North Broadway, Suite 301, Baltimore, MD 21205. E-mail: scohen40{at}


Background and Objectives: Since its advent more than 50 years ago, the use of discography has been mired in controversy. The purpose of this review is to provide a clinical overview of lumbar discography and discogenic back pain, with special emphasis on determining the accuracy of discography and whether or not the procedure improves outcomes for surgery.

Methods: Material for this review was obtained from a MEDLINE search conducted from 1951 thru September 2004, bibliographic references, book chapters, and conference proceedings.

Results: Based on a large number of comparative studies, plain discography is less accurate than magnetic resonance imaging in diagnosing lumbar herniated nucleus pulposus and comparable or slightly more sensitive in detecting degenerative disc disease. For disc degeneration, CT discography remains the gold standard for diagnosis. There are very few studies comparing surgical outcomes between patients who have undergone preoperative provocative discography and those who have not. What little evidence exists is conflicting. Before disc replacement surgery, approximately half the studies have used preoperative discography. A comparison of outcomes did not reveal any significant difference between the 2 groups but none of the studies was controlled, and they used different outcome measures, follow-up periods, and surgical techniques. Because all intradiscal electrothermal therapy (IDET) studies have used discography before surgery, no conclusions can be drawn regarding its effects on outcome.

Conclusions: Although discography, especially combined with CT scanning, may be more accurate than other radiologic studies in detecting degenerative disc disease, its ability to improve surgical outcomes has yet to be proven. In the United States and Europe, there are inconsistencies in the use of lumbar discography such that it is routinely used before IDET, yet only occasionally used before spinal fusion.

  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Discogenic pain
  • Discography
  • Internal disc disruption
  • Intervertebral disc
  • Lumbar spine

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