Original Research

Could an increase in vigilance for spinal tuberculosis at primary health care level, enable earlier diagnosis at district level in a tuberculosis endemic country?

Karen M. Galloway, Romy Parker
African Journal of Primary Health Care & Family Medicine | Vol 10, No 1 | a1666 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/phcfm.v10i1.1666 | © 2018 Karen M. Galloway, Romy Parker | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 24 October 2017 | Published: 18 June 2018

About the author(s)

Karen M. Galloway, Private Practice,Centani, South Africa
Romy Parker, Department of Anaesthesia and Perioperative Medicine, University of Cape Town, South Africa


Background: Expert clinicians and researchers in the field of spinal tuberculosis (STB) advocate for early identification and diagnosis as a key to reducing disability, severity of disease, expensive surgery and death, especially in tuberculosis (TB) endemic countries like South Africa. South Africa has the highest incidence per capita of tuberculosis in the world, and a conservative estimate of the incidence of STB in South Africa is 8–16:100 000. People living with STB may initially present to primary health care (PHC) centres, where the opportunity exists for early identification. Spinal pain is the most common presentation of STB, but even this symptom may not be present. Occasionally the only symptoms are neurological injury, dysphagia or referred pain. Computerised tomography-guided biopsy remains the diagnostic gold standard for STB.

Aim: A narrative review was undertaken to investigate the evidence available that could assist with the early diagnosis of STB.

Method: Articles were searched for and retrieved from three databases and assessed for quality and relevance to primary settings in a TB endemic country.

Results: The following evidence-based, affordable and available tools could facilitate early diagnosis of STB at PHC and district hospital levels: (1) back pain screening questions, undressed spinal physical examination, HIV and antiretroviral therapy history, (2) erythrocyte sedimentation rate, C-reactive protein, platelets, haemoglobin, white cell count (WCC), sputum for GeneXpert and accurate weight measurement, (3) physiotherapy and/or medical and/or speech therapy assessment, (4) full spinal radiograph, chest radiograph, abdominal ultrasound, urine lipoarabinomannan (LAM) if CD4 < 200 and ultrasound-guided biopsy of superficial abscesses, (5) clear referral guidelines at all levels, (6) a positive response to treatment to confirm the diagnosis.

Conclusion: These affordable and simple actions at PHC and district levels could facilitate earlier diagnosis of STB.


Spinal Tuberculosis; Early identification; early diagnosis; Disability Prevention; pathological back pain


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Crossref Citations

1. Clinical value of interferon‑γ release assay in the diagnosis of active tuberculosis
Lu Ai, Pinning Feng, Dubo Chen, Shaoqian Chen, Hongxu Xu
Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine  year: 2019  
doi: 10.3892/etm.2019.7696