What is a discogram?
A discogram, or discography, is an x-ray test that can help diagnose the cause of back pain.
Discs are spongy cushions between your vertebrae, or spine bones. They act as your spine’s “shock absorbers” and keep your spine flexible. When a disc gets injured — maybe due to heavy lifting or age-related deterioration — its outer layer weakens or tears and its gel-like inside tries to squeeze out. A bulging or ruptured disc can press on nerves in your spinal column and cause pain, numbness or weakness in your back, neck or leg.
During a discogram, a physician can identify which disc is causing you discomfort by injecting dye into one or more discs and viewing them on an x-ray or CT scan. The procedure helps doctors know which disk to treat — or sometimes surgically remove.
How is a discogram done?
First, you’ll be given an intravenous medication to relax you. Then, you’ll lie on your side on an x-ray table.
Your doctor will numb an area of skin on your back with a local anesthetic. Then, guided by an x-ray, he or she will:
- Insert a needle into your back and into the center of a disc
- Inject dye into the disc and then remove the needle
Then he or she will ask you to rate the discomfort in your back, neck or leg, if any. Any pain caused by the injection is temporary. Your doctor may repeat the procedure for other discs.
After the injections, you’ll have an x-ray or CT scan of your injected discs. If the injected dye has spread from the center of a disc, that means the disc has tears and is damaged.
Usually, the procedure takes less than one hour. Then you’ll stay for observation for at least 30 minutes. Most people go home soon after.
What are the risks?
The risk of complication from a discogram is very low. However, there could be bruising or soreness at the injection site. Complications, such as infection, nerve damage and allergic reaction to the dye, are uncommon.
What happens after the procedure?
You may have some pain where the needle was injected. It will go away in a few hours.
You can continue your regular diet and medications immediately, but do not drive or do any rigorous activity for 24 hours after the procedure. Take it easy. You can return to your normal activities the next day.
Is a discogram right for you?
A discogram may be right for you if you have back pain that has not improved after four to six months of using medication, physical therapy or other conservative treatments. Because the procedure uses x-ray or CT scan, a discogram may not be right for women who are or may be pregnant.
Talk to your physician about it. To schedule an evaluation at Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Pain Management call 216.444.PAIN (7246) or 800.392.3353.