Background: Low back pain exists in epidemic proportions in the United States. Studies that demonstrate innervation to the intervertebral disk provide evidence that may account for instances of discogenic low back pain encountered in general medical and chiropractic practice. Many patients and health care practitioners believe that intervertebral disk lesions require surgery as the only method of treatment that will result in satisfactory outcome. Surgery rates vary widely across geographic regions. Only one randomized prospective study exists that compares surgical and nonsurgical treatment; it demonstrated essentially equal outcomes in the long run.
Objective: To review specific aspects of the examination, history, imaging, and treatment of patients with suspected intervertebral disk lesions and to provide guidelines for conservative management, imaging, and relative and absolute indications for surgical referral.
Data sources: Review articles, texts, and original articles from indexed refereed sources that discuss the lumbar intervertebral disk in regard to patient history, physical examination, imaging, treatment, and referral for surgery.
Results: Patients with low back pain who do not present with so-called red flags (fever, history of cancer, unexplained weight loss, urinary tract infection, intravenous drug use, saddle anesthesia, or prolonged use of corticosteroids) may be treated initially with conservative methods. Imaging studies are helpful in determining the patient's diagnosis, and computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, or other special imaging studies should be ordered judiciously. The only prospective, randomized study of conservative versus surgical management of herniated lumbar intervertebral disk lesions indicates both methods provide adequate outcome in the long run. Little consensus exists on the best method of management for patients with intervertebral disk lesions without absolute indications for surgery.
Conclusion: Patients should be screened for "red flags" to determine whether they are candidates for conservative treatment. Magnetic resonance imaging is perhaps the most practical imaging study for evaluation of lumbar disk lesions because it involves no use of ionizing radiation and because magnetic resonance imaging has other advantages over computed tomographic scanning such as excellent delineation of soft tissue structures, direct multiplanar imaging, and excellent characterization of medullary bone. Provocation computed tomography-diskography is an invasive procedure and should be reserved for patients with normal magnetic resonance imaging findings and continuing severe pain who have not been helped by conservative treatment attempts and for whom surgical intervention is contemplated. Both conservative and surgical interventions have been shown to be effective in the treatment of discogenic and radicular pain syndromes.