Sutter Spine Services
As with any part of the body, bacteria can enter the spinal structure and cause an infection. Though spinal infections are uncommon, Sutter doctors do occasionally see and treat infections affecting the discs, vertebrae, fluids and tissues of the spine. Of these, the most common include:
Discitis is a low-grade infection, usually caused by staphylococcus aureus bacteria that occurs as an abscess in the disc space. The infection is more common in children under age 10, but may affect patients of any age and can occur following back surgery. The most typical symptom is pain that comes on slowly until becoming severe enough to make it hard to sit, walk or stand. Diagnosing discitis usually involves a spinal X-ray and bone scan, and may also include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the spine. Treatment typically involves immobilizing the spine to reduce pressure and enable healing, and may or may not include antibiotic treatment.
A spinal epidural abscess is an infection of the dura, the fluid between the spinal cord covering (meninges) and the vertebra of the spine. It may spread from a bacterial or fungal infection elsewhere in the body, including osteomyelitis (see below), though the initial infection may never be identified. In addition to common symptoms of pain and fever, the infection causes swelling that puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots that may cause numbness and weakness in the arms and legs. Epidural abscess is a medical emergency that can cause death or paralysis if not detected and treated soon enough. Doctors diagnose spinal epidural abscess with a computed tomography (CT) scan of the spine or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the spine and may also take a sample of the spinal fluid for testing. Treatment typically includes intravenous antibiotics and surgery to remove the abscess.
Meningitis is a viral, bacterial or fungal infection of the spinal cord covering (meninges) that requires immediate medical treatment. The infection causes swelling that can interrupt blood flow and oxygen to the brain and cause lasting damage. For a comprehensive discussion, see meningitis in our Healthwise health information section.
Osteomyelitis is an infection of the vertebra that is most often caused when an infection travels through the blood from another site in the body, but can occur following back or urinary tract surgery. Children and elderly patients develop osteomyelitis more often than healthy adults, though intravenous drug users are at risk. The infection often comes on slowly, with pain gradually increasing, and includes systemic symptoms, such as fever and chills. Immediate antibiotic treatment is critical to prevent permanent bone damage and spread of infection to discs and surrounding tissue. Diagnostic tools include spinal X-ray and complete blood count (CBC) blood test to check for signs the body is fighting an infection. A computed tomography (CT) scan of the spine or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the spine test may also be done. Treatment often begins in the hospital with intravenous (IV) antibiotics and continues with IV antibiotics at home. Though uncommon, surgery is sometimes necessary to remove the infected bone.
For more information on bone and joint conditions, select one of the following: