FAQs on Discography

The intervertebral discs are important components of the spine. These quarter-sized cushions support the spine, provide flexibility, and cushion the body’s weight. When the disc suffer wear-and-tear, or degenerate, there is loss of water content to the gel-like central portion, which is called the nucleus. A discogram is used to assess disc damage for the purpose of diagnosing disease.

What happens with the disc as a person ages?

With age and from injury, the discs become damaged. In addition, the supporting ligaments around the discs weaken. One reason a person loses body height with age is from loss of water content to the discs.

Why perform a discogram?

When the doctor suspects an injured disc is the source of back pain, he may choose to perform a discogram. This procedure allows the doctor to visualize tears in the outer tough, fibrous layers around the disc (annulus), which causes pain. Reproduction of pain during the discogram helps determine if or not injury has occurred or if the disc is diseased.

How do I prepare for the discogram?

Since a mild sedative may be given, you should arrange to have someone drive you home. When you arrive at the medical center, a nurse will discuss the pros and cons of the procedure and have you sign a form of informed consent. The nurse has you change into a gown, places the IV line in your hand or arm, and moves you to the procedure room.

How is the discogram performed?

After administering a mild sedative, you are positioned face-down on a special procedure table. The area is cleaned with an antiseptic solution before being numbed with an anesthetic. Once the skin and deeper tissues are numbed, a special needle is inserted into the disc using x-ray guidance. The doctor injects fluid into the disc to exert pressure. Patients report pain intensity on a 0-10 scale, so the doctor can determine the extent of problems. Based on this information, a diagnosis can be made in relation to this procedure. When complete, the doctor removes the needle and secures the area with a bandage.

What will I feel during the procedure?

When fluid is injected into the disc, most people only report a sense of pressure. If the disc is abnormal, some pain may be reported, but it is not severe. The doctor often injects more than one disc, so it is important to tell the doctor which discs are painful and which ones are not.

Does the discogram help my back pain?

The discogram is a diagnostic procedure, not a therapeutic one. A few patients report increasing pain following the procedure, but this subsides after a few hours. We recommend using an ice pack to the affected area for 20-minute intervals several times a day for 1-2 days afterwards.

Can I return to work after the discogram?

If a sedative is given, you should rest the remainder of the day. We advise patients to stay home from work for 2-3 days following the procedure, and to gradually return to usual activities.

Who is a candidate for the discogram?

Not all people are candidates for this procedure. If you are allergic to any medications required during the procedure, have an infection, or have bleeding problems, do not have the discogram. Candidates are those in good health with no heart problems, people with back problems, and individuals who have controlled diabetes or no diabetes.