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Discitis is a cause of severe back pain that affects about 1 in 100,000 people.*
*Source: Medical University of South Carolina

Discitis Overview

Discitis is a condition caused by infection, inflammation and irritation of the small spaces between the disks of the spine. Swelling in the spaces puts pressure on the disks, which causes pain. Discitis is fairly uncommon and mostly affects young children.

The condition typically involves the upper back (thoracic) and lower back (lumbar). Sometimes surrounding tissue, joints and vertebrae can become irritated and inflamed. It’s important that discitis is diagnosed as early as possible so that antibiotic treatment can be administered promptly to relieve pain and avoid more serious consequences including additional infection.

Discitis can be caused by a bacterial or viral infection, or another source of inflammation such as an autoimmune disease. These are conditions in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks cells in the body.

Sometimes discitis can be the result of a medical or therapeutic procedure. For example, surgery on the back or a needle in the back can introduce pathogens, which can lead to infection. In other instances the bacteria or virus enters the body through the urinary tract, intestine or other means.

Because the symptoms of discitis can mimic those of conditions related to aging and wear and tear on the spine, expert diagnosis is essential. Your WellStar neurologist will help rule out other causes of back pain and confirm a diagnosis of discitis.

Discitis can be difficult to treat. Because the area is not served by a good blood supply, it can be challenging to get medications (typically antibiotics) into the location.


Discitis is characterized by back severe pain, sometimes described as unbearable. Other symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Difficulty getting up and standing
  • Increased curvature of the back
  • Loss of appetite
  • Back stiffness
  • Irritability
  • Low-grade (under 102 degrees F.) fever and chills
  • Recent flu-like symptoms
  • A refusal to sit up, stand or walk (in a young child)

With discitis, back pain is usually localized in the area of the infection. Unlike some other causes of back pain, including sciatica, the pain from discitis does not radiate down the leg.

Risk Factors

Those most at risk for getting discitis include:

  • Children under age 10 and the elderly
  • Individuals with autoimmune disorders
  • Individuals with weakened immune systems
  • Individuals with an elevated risk of infection
  • Patients who have had back surgery or other procedures
  • Individuals who abuse drugs and alcohol