FAQs on Lumbar Discogram in Atlanta

Approximately 90% of the U.S. population will have at least one episode of low back pain during their lifetime. Chronic low back pain is the most common cause of disability in people aged 45 to 65 years. In 40% of those with back pain, the intervertebral disc is the cause of the pain.

A lumbar discogram is a diagnostic procedure where x-ray dye (contrast material) is injected into the spinal discs. The discogram is used to show fissures, tears, or damage to the disc, and the results are used to formulate a treatment plan for the disc itself. The lumbar discs are the cushions positioned between each vertebra of the low back spine (lumbar region).

What is the purpose of a discogram?

A discogram is usually done to find if the pain is caused by a damaged or degenerated disc, or to discover which disc(s) is/are responsible for the pain. While the lumbar discogram does not treat the diseased or damaged disc, it is used to determine how the disc should be treated.

How does a damaged disc cause pain?

With injury or age, the wall of the disc cracks or tears, which is called degenerative disc disease or internal disc disruption. The wall of the disc may weaken and protrude out, which causes pain felt as a deep ache in the back, buttocks, or thighs. However, the structures around or in the spine can cause the same type of pain. The best way to tell if the pain is related to a damaged disc is a discogram.

Who needs a discogram?

The North American Spine Society (NASS) recommends the use of discogram for patients who have/are:

  • Negative diagnostic imagining test results
  • Persistent back pain
  • Suspected intervertebral disc abnormalities
  • Being considered for spinal fusion surgery

How is the discogram done?

The discogram procedure is performed under sterile conditions using x-ray guidance (fluoroscopy). An intravenous (IV) catheter is placed into your hand or arm for antibiotics and possibly a sedative. You will be positioned on your stomach, and your back is cleansed with an antiseptic solution. The doctor will numb the skin and deeper tissues with a local anesthetic.

Once numb, a needle is passed into the disc(s) being studied, and contrast dye is injected as well. X-rays are taken during the procedure, and the doctor will ask you several questions regarding your pain. After this, the needles are removed and a bandage is applied.

Is the procedure painful?

Because the doctor uses an anesthetic agent, you will only feel a sense of pressure and no pain. When an abnormal disc is injected, you will experience some pain. It is important to tell the doctor if the pain is the same as your usual pain or different.

What can I expect after the lumbar discogram?

The discogram is not a treatment, so your condition will not improve. This diagnostic test, however, allows your doctor to plan your specific treatment. It is possible that you may experience a flare-up of back pain after the procedure, but this gets better in 24-48 hours with the use of ice packs to the area several times a day. Be sure to bring someone with you to drive you home, and we advise patients to rest for the remainder of the day.

What are the risks and complications associated with a discogram?

The discogram is a safe procedure, but there are some risks and complications associated with it. The most common side effect is mild pain at the injection, which is only temporary. Other risks include infection, nerve damage, worsening of symptoms, and bleeding.