Radionuclide imaging of spinal infections

Eur J Nucl Med Mol Imaging. 2006 Oct;33(10):1226-37. doi: 10.1007/s00259-006-0098-2.


Background: The diagnosis of spinal infection, with or without implants, has been a challenge for physicians for many years. Spinal infections are now being recognised more frequently, owing to aging of the population and the increasing use of spinal-fusion surgery.

Discussion: The diagnosis in many cases is delayed, and this may result in permanent neurological damage or even death. Laboratory evidence of infection is variable. Conventional radiography and radionuclide bone imaging lack both sensitivity and specificity. Neither in vitro labelled leucocyte scintigraphy nor 99mTc-anti-granulocyte antibody scintigraphy is especially useful, because of the frequency with which spinal infection presents as a non-specific photopenic area on these tests. Sequential bone/gallium imaging and 67Ga-SPECT are currently the radionuclide procedures of choice for spinal osteomyelitis, but these tests lack specificity, suffer from poor spatial resolution and require several days to complete. [18F]Fluoro-2-deoxy-D-glucose (FDG) PET is a promising technique for diagnosing spinal infection, and has several potential advantages over conventional radionuclide tests.

Results: The study is sensitive and is completed in a single session, and image quality is superior to that obtained with single-photon emitting tracers. The specificity of FDG-PET may also be superior to that of conventional tracers because degenerative bone disease and fractures usually do not produce intense FDG uptake; moreover, spinal implants do not affect FDG imaging. However, FDG-PET images have to be read with caution in patients with instrumented spinal-fusion surgery since non-specific accumulation of FDG around the fusion material is not uncommon.

Conclusion: In the future, PET-CT will likely provide more precise localisation of abnormalities. FDG-PET may prove to be useful for monitoring response to treatment in patients with spinal osteomyelitis. Other tracers for diagnosing spinal osteomyelitis are also under investigation, including radiolabelled antibiotics, such as 99mTc-ciprofloxacin, and radiolabelled streptavidin-biotin complex. Antimicrobial peptides display preferential binding to microorganisms over human cells and perhaps new radiopharmaceuticals will be recruited from the array of human antimicrobial peptides/proteins. In experiments with Tc-ubiquicidin-derived peptides, radioactivity at the site of infection correlated well with the number of viable bacteria present. Finally, radiolabelled antifungal tracers could potentially distinguish fungal from bacterial infections.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Image Enhancement / methods*
  • Myelitis / diagnostic imaging*
  • Positron-Emission Tomography / methods*
  • Radioisotopes*
  • Radiopharmaceuticals
  • Spinal Cord / diagnostic imaging*
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed, Single-Photon / methods*


  • Radioisotopes
  • Radiopharmaceuticals