What is Discography?

A discogram, or discography, is a test used to evaluate back pain. A discogram might help your doctor determine if an abnormal disk in your spine is causing your back pain.

Spinal disks are sponge-like cushions between the bones (vertebrae) of the spine. During a discogram, dye is injected into the soft center of one or more disks. The injection sometimes reproduces your back pain.

A discogram is an invasive test that generally isn’t used for an initial evaluation of back pain. Your doctor might suggest a discogram if your back pain persists despite conservative treatments, such as medication and physical therapy.

A discogram is performed in a clinic or hospital room that has imaging equipment. You’ll likely be there for up to three hours, although the test itself takes 30 to 60 minutes, depending on how many disks are tested.

  • Although you’re awake during the procedure, your doctor might give you a sedative through a vein to help you relax. You also might be given an antibiotic to help prevent infection.
  • During the procedure. You lie on a table on your abdomen or side. After cleaning your skin, your doctor may inject a numbing medicine to decrease pain caused by the insertion of the discogram needle.
  • Your doctor will use an imaging technique (fluoroscopy) to watch the needle enter your body. Fluoroscopy allows more precise and safer placement of the needle into the center of the disk to be examined. A contrast dye is then injected into the disk, and an X-ray or CT scan is taken to see if the dye spreads.
  • If the dye stays in the center of the disk, the disk is normal. If the dye spreads outside the center of the disk, the disk has undergone some wear-and-tear change. These changes might or might not be the cause of your pain.

Typically, if a disk is causing your back pain, you will feel pain during the injection that’s similar to the back pain you have daily. If a disk is normal, there’s little pain during the injection. During the discogram, you’ll be asked to rate your pain.

You remain in the procedure room for approximately 30 to 60 minutes for observation. 

It’s normal to have some pain at the injection site or in the low back for several hours after the procedure. Applying an ice pack to the area for 20 minutes at a time might help. You’ll need to keep your back dry for 24 hours.

A discogram is generally safe. But as with any medical procedure, a discogram carries a risk of complications, including:

  • Infection
  • Worsening of chronic back pain
  • Headache
  • Injury to nerves or blood vessels in and around the spine
  • Allergic reaction to the dye