UMEM Educational Pearls

Category: Airway Management

Title: Laboratory studies in the early evaluation of low back pain.

Keywords: Epidural abscess, back pain (PubMed Search)

Posted: 3/14/2020 by Brian Corwell, MD (Updated: 2/28/2024)
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Laboratory studies are not often indicated in the early evaluation of low back pain.

 

Complete blood counts (CBC) have poor sensitivity and specificity for infection. White blood cell  (WBC) counts, have poor sensitivity and specificity for infection. They may be elevated and a left shift or bandemia may be present and increase suspicion for infection, but a lack of these does not rule out infection. Elevated WBC counts are only found in two-thirds of patients with SEA.

Both erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and C-reactive protein (CRP) are highly sensitive (84-100%) for spinal infections and are observed in >80% with vertebral osteomyelitis and epidural abscesses. However, elevated CRP was found in 87% of patients with an epidural abscess as well as half of patients with spine pain not due to an epidural abscess, so is not highly specific.

 CRP levels rise rapidly and decrease rapidly with improvement in disease and may be better used to follow response to treatment. ESR is the most sensitive and specific serum marker of infection. ESR is elevated in 94-100% of patients with an epidural abscess compared to only 33% of those without an epidural abscess. Infection is unlikely in patients with an ESR less than 20 mm/h. Although an elevated ESR (>20 mm/h) is the most specific serum test for infection, it also may indicate occult malignancy (sensitivity, 78%; specificity, 67%).

If infection is suspected, obtain two sets of blood cultures, as a causative pathogen may be identified in ~50% of patients.