Background Context Controversy remains over the use of provocative discography in conjunction with computed tomography (CT) to locate symptomatic intervertebral discs in patients with chronic, low back pain (LBP). The current study explores the relationship between discogenic pain and disc morphology using discography and CT, respectively, and investigates the efficacy of this combined method in identifying surgical candidates for lumbar fusion by evaluating outcomes. Methods 43 consecutive patients between 2006 and 2013 who presented with refractory low back pain and underwent discography and CT were enrolled in the study. For this study, "refractory LBP" was defined as pain symptoms that persisted or worsened after 6 months of non-operative treatments. Concordant pain was defined as discography-provoked LBP of similar character and location with an intensity of ≥ 8/10. Fusion candidates demonstrated positive-level discography and concordant annular tears on CT at no more than two contiguous levels, and at least one negative control disc with intact annulus. Surgical outcomes were statistically analyzed using Visual Analog Scale (VAS), Oswestry Disability Index (ODI), and Short Form-36 (SF-36) for back-related pain and disability preoperatively, and 2 weeks, 3, 6, 12, and 24 months postoperatively. Results Annular tears were found in 87 discs. Concordant pain was reported by 9 (20.9%) patients at L3-L4, 21 (50.0%) at L4-L5, and 34 (82.9%) at L5-S1; pain occurred significantly more often in discs with annular tears than those without (p<0.001). Painless discs were independent of annulus status (p=0.90). 18 (42%) of the original 43 patients underwent lumbar fusion at L3-L4 (n=1(6%)), L4-L5 (n=6 (33%)), L5-S1 (n=5 (28%)), and two-level L4-S1 (n=6 (33%)) via a minimally invasive transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion (MITLIF) approach with the aim to replace the nucleus pulposus with bone graft material. Median follow-up time was 18 months (range: 12-78 months). VAS, ODI, and SF-36 scores demonstrated significant improvements at 10 out of 12 postoperative time points compared with preoperative baseline. Conclusions Lumbar discography with post-discography CT can be an effective method to evaluate patients with discogenic back pain refractory to non-operative treatments. Those patients with one- or two-level high concordant pain scores with associated annular tears and negative control disc represent good surgical candidates for lumbar interbody spinal fusion.
Keywords: annular tear; computed tomography; degenerative disc disease; discogenic pain; discography; low back pain.