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Provocative discography in volunteer subjects with mild persistent low back pain.

BACKGROUND CONTEXT: Whether discographic injections would be positive in subjects with benign persistent "backache" who are not seeking treatment is unknown. This information is important, because benign backache undoubtedly co-exists in patients with chronic low back pain (CLBP) illness that is not discogenicin origin. If these subjects had a high rate of positive discography, the high background incidence of common backache would allow many positive tests in patients in whom discogenic processes were unrelated to their severe CLBP illness. Conversely, if subjects with benign low back pain rarely if ever had significant concordant pain reproduction on disc injections, the basic tenet of discographic diagnosis would be strengthened.

PURPOSE: To compare, using a strict experimental design, the relative pain and concordancy response to provocative discography in subjects with clinically insignificant "backache" and clinical subjects with CLBP illness considering surgical treatment.

STUDY DESIGN: Comparison of experimental disc injections in subjects with persistent mild backache and those with chronic low back pain (CLBP) illness.

PATIENT SAMPLE: Twenty-five subjects with mild persistent low back pain (LBP) were recruited for an experimental discography study. Subjects were recruited from a clinical study of patients having had cervical spine surgery. Inclusion criteria required that subjects not be receiving or seeking medical treatment for LBP, be taking no medications for backache, have no activity restrictions because of LBP, and have normal psychometric scores. To more closely approximate the pain behavior in CLBP illness, 50% (12) of the "backache" group were recruited with a chronic painful condition (neck/shoulder) unrelated to the low back. CLBP subjects, patients coming to discography for consideration of surgical treatment, were used as control subjects.

OUTCOME MEASURES: Results of discography were determined using the criteria of Walsh et al.: pain response of 3 or greater, two or more pain behaviors, a negative "control" discographic injection, and a similar or exact concordancy rating.

METHODS: Discography was performed on experimental subjects and control patients. Experienced raters, who were blinded to control versus experimental status of the subjects, scored the magnetic resonance image, discogram, psychometric tests and discography videotapes of the subjects' pain behavior.

RESULTS: Thirteen of 25 volunteer subjects had pain rated as "bad" or worse with disc injection. There were 12 painful and fully concordant disc injections in 9 of these 25 "backache" subjects (36%). These injections met all the Walsh et al. criteria for a positive diagnosis of discogenic pain. All positive discs had annular disruption to or through the outer annulus. Of the 9 subjects with positive discograms, 3 had no chronic pain states and 6 did. All subjects with positive injections had negative control discs. In comparison, in 52 subjects with CLBP illness 38 (73%) had at least one positive disc injection.

CONCLUSIONS: In a group of volunteer subjects with persistent "backache," 36% were found to have significant pain on disc injection, which is reported to be concordant with their usual pain. The presence of positive concordant pain responses and negative control discs in 33% of subjects without CLBP illness seriously challenges the specificity of provocative discography in identifying a clinically relevant spinal pathology.

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