Spinal Infections: What You Need to Know
If you suffer from back pain or neck pain, finding relief can be possible and often without requiring surgery. But first you need a doctor – preferably a back specialist – to identify what is causing your pain. There are several possible culprits, ranging from the common (strained muscles, pinched nerve, or herniated disc) to the more rare conditions. One serious, yet rare, cause of back and neck pain is a spinal infection.
What is a Spinal Infection?
A spinal infection can be bacterial, viral, or fungal in nature, and can affect the bones in:
- the vertebrae – the series of small bones forming the backbone
- the intervertebral discs – discs that serves as the cushion between the vertebrae to absorb shock and stress during movement
- the space surrounding the roots of the nerves, or
- soft tissues next to or around the spine.
The most common spinal infections are bacterial and are spread to the spine through the bloodstream. This can happen from a number of things including a bladder or urinary infection, or a recent injury to the skin such as a wound or a cut. When bacteria enters the discs in the vertebrae it causes the discs to degenerate, or wear down, over time. As the discs degenerate, the bacteria may spread into the areas around the disc and lead to osteomyelitis. Left untreated, a case of discitis can evolve and lead to a case of osteomyelitis. That’s just one reason why it’s important to visit a spine specialist as soon as you notice any unusual sensations in your back or neck.
What Causes A Spinal Infection?
The most common reason patients develop spinal infections is because they suffer from weakened immune systems due to:
- diabetes mellitus
- IV drug use
- past organ transplant, or
- use of immunosuppressant medications.
With the immune system compromised, infection-causing organisms such as Staphylococcus aureus or E. Coli bacteria are able to enter the bloodstream and infect the spine and surrounding tissues. In rare cases, infection can develop after a spinal surgery or as a result of being infected with tuberculosis.
Symptoms of a Spinal Infection
Often, the first symptom of a spinal infection is not pain, but tenderness in an area of the back or neck that becomes worse when you move. Patients may assume they’ve pulled or strained a muscle and that the sensation will go away on its own, over time. If you’re experiencing this type of pain for more than 10 days while avoiding strenuous exercise or activity, it’s most likely time to schedule an appointment with a back and neck specialist.
Unfortunately, rest and pain relievers won’t cure a spinal infection. Over time as the infection spreads and the spine begins to weaken and become damaged, symptoms of infection may include fever, chills, nighttime pain, and weight loss. Unfortunately, by the time many patients seek medical attention (because they’re experiencing severe back pain and loss of mobility), the infection has become serious and widespread.
How a Back Specialist Diagnoses and Treats Spinal Infection
When a spine doctor suspects spinal infection, he will probably order an X-ray, MRI scan, and blood work. Occasionally, a needle biopsy or surgery is needed to retrieve cultures so the doctor can identify the organism responsible for the infection and prescribe appropriate treatment.
The most common treatment for a spinal infection is treatment with IV antibiotics for as long as 8 weeks. Because the spinal discs have limited blood supply, it takes time for antibiotics and the body’s own immune cells to reach the infection and begin fighting it. In addition to antibiotics, patients may need to wear a back brace to keep the spine stabile as it heals. In advanced spinal infections, spinal surgery may be needed to treat the infection and relieve nerve compression.
Dr. Fayaz treats patients with spinal infections. If you’re experiencing back pain that doesn’t go away after 7-10 days of avoiding strenuous activities, we encourage you to make an appointment at our office to find out the cause.