An update of the appraisal of the accuracy and utility of cervical discography in chronic neck pain

Obi Onyewu, Laxmaiah Manchikanti, Frank J.E. Falco, Vijay Singh, Stephanie Geffert, Standiford Helm, Steven P. Cohen, Joshua A. Hirsch

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Background: Chronic neck pain represents a significant public health problem. Despite high prevalence rates, there is a lack of consensus regarding the causes or treatments for this condition. Based on controlled evaluations, the cervical intervertebral discs, facet joints, and atlantoaxial joints have all been implicated as pain generators. Cervical provocation discography, which includes disc stimulation and morphological evaluation, is occasionally used to distinguish a painful disc from other potential sources of pain. Yet in the absence of validation and controlled outcome studies, the procedure remains mired in controversy. Study Design: A systematic review of the diagnostic accuracy of cervical discography. Objective: To systematically evaluate and update the diagnostic accuracy of cervical discography. Methods: The available literature on cervical discography was reviewed. Methodological quality assessment of included studies was performed using Quality Appraisal of Reliability Studies (QAREL). Only diagnostic accuracy studies meeting at least 50% of the designated inclusion criteria were utilized for analysis. However, studies scoring less than 50% are presented descriptively and analyzed critically. The level of evidence was classified as good, fair, and limited or poor based on the quality of evidence developed by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Data sources included relevant literature identified through searches of PubMed and EMBASE from 1966 to June 2012, and manual searches of the bibliographies of known primary and review articles. Results: A total of 41 manuscripts were considered for accuracy and utility of cervical discography in chronic neck pain. There were 23 studies evaluating accuracy of discography. There were 3 studies meeting inclusion criteria for assessing the accuracy and prevalence of discography, with a prevalence of 16% to 53%. Based on modified Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) accuracy evaluation and United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) level of evidence criteria, this systematic review indicates the strength of evidence is limited for the diagnostic accuracy of cervical discography. Limitations: Limitations include a paucity of literature, poor methodological quality, and very few studies performed utilizing International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) criteria. Conclusion: There is limited evidence for the diagnostic accuracy of cervical discography. Nevertheless, in the absence of any other means to establish a relationship between pathology and symptoms, cervical provocation discography may be an important evaluation tool in certain contexts to identify a subset of patients with chronic neck pain secondary to intervertebral disc disorders. Based on the current systematic review, cervical provocation discography performed according to the IASP criteria with control disc(s), and a minimum provoked pain intensity of 7 of 10, or at least 70% reproduction of worst pain (i.e. worst spontaneous pain of 7 = 7 x 70% = 5), may be a useful tool for evaluating chronic pain and cervical disc abnormalities in a small proportion of patients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)E777-E806
JournalPain physician
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2012


  • Analgesic discography
  • Cervical discography
  • Cervical intervertebral disc
  • Chronic cervical pain
  • Diagnostic accuracy
  • False-positives
  • Outcomes
  • Pain generator
  • Provocation discography
  • Sensitivity
  • Specificity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine


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