degenerative, MRI, low back pain

A retrospective magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) analysis 1 of lumbar degenerative changes in 283 patients with chronic low back pain (CLBP) found more severe disc degeneration (DD), lower disc height, and more extreme disc displacement at the L4–L5 and L5-S1 of patients with work-related CLBP. The results of the study help to elucidate MRI-visible changes and clinical attributes of work-related CLBP.

What’s at Stake

Lower back pain (LBP) affects up to 84 percent of the world population at some point in life and can contribute to acute or chronic disability in up to 12 percent of those affected. As of 2016, LBP was the leading cause of years lived with a disability, and the U.S. economic burden of LBP is estimated to be somewhere between 84.1 billion to 624.8 billion dollars. Understanding the various stages and degenerative characteristics of LBP can help with appropriate and timely treatment, which may help to reduce cases of CLBP. MRI allows physicians to recognize pathologies, so they can appropriately plan treatment for their LBP patients.

Study Design

The study involved the retrospective review of medical records of adults who had sought treatment for CLBP that had lasted for a period of greater than three months. Inclusion requirements included MRI scans of the entire lumbar spine and clinical lumbar evaluations. Excluded were patients under 18, or those whose LBP was intermittent or had not occurred every day for at least three months. Those experiencing pain that outranked their LBP elsewhere in their body were also excluded from the study, as were patients who could not have an MRI, who had a lumbar infection, spinal trauma, tumor, deformities, or spontaneous septic spondylodiscitis or epidural abscess, previous back surgery, osteoarthritis of the hip, and significant psychological disturbances.

Subject demographics were collected and analyzed, including their occupations, how many hours per week they worked, heavy lifting or lengthy desk sitting involved in their jobs, and the age, sex, body mass index, education level, smoking history, and duration of their LBP. Their LBP scores were recorded using a Visual Analog Scale (VAS) from 0 to 10 (no pain to worst pain). The Oswestry Disability Index (ODI) was used to rank each subject’s functional capacity, where those with a lower percentage were rated healthier.

Imaging Analysis Results

Pre-treatment MRIs of three positions—neutral, flexion, and extension—were performed on each subject by two experienced radiologists and then independently evaluated by an orthopedic surgeon. The subjects were grouped according to their MRI results. The four groups included: normal disc (ND), degenerative disc (DD), bulging disc (BD), and herniated disc (HD). Statistical analysis was performed using special software, and clinically-significant value was assigned. Of the 283 patients with CLBP taking part in the study, 110 were women, and 173 were men, and they ranged in age from 18 to 80, with a mean age of 41.8. The post-MRI groups included 37 subjects in the ND group, 85 in the DD group, 123 in the BD group, and 38 in the HD group. The mean age of the patients in the ND group was significantly lower (31.9) than that of the DD group patients (42.8), HD group (39.3), and the BD group (44.9). The ratio of male to female across all groups was 6:4, but the ratio in the HD group was 84.2 % male to 15.8 % female. The duration of CLBP across all groups was roughly 25 months, but when analyzed group-to-group, it progressively ranged from 15 to 25 months, with the ND group at the lowest range, followed by the DD, BD, and HD groups. The duration of pain was significantly increased from the ND group to the BD group. There were few differences in age, smoking history, or education levels across the groups.

The subjects were further categorized into 10 groups based on their occupations. The three groups that were most prominently represented in the ND, DD, BD, and HD groups were manual workers, desk workers, and technicians. They were similarly represented within their groups. Working hours were also similar across these groups, between 59.7 and 63.2 hours per week. The percentage of subjects who were required to manually handle weighty objects at work was significantly lower than those with no manual handling. The number of working hours spent sitting at a desk was much higher in the DD group, as compared to the other three groups.

When comparing clinical CLBP, the VAS pain scores in the DD, BD, and HD groups were much higher than those of the ND group members. The ODI scores of these three groups were also higher than those of the ND group, and those in the HD group were significantly higher than subjects in the DD and BD groups, indicating less functionality.

The MRI looked for the degree of DD in the neutral, flexion, and extension positions, as well as the vertebral height (anterior and posterior), slipping distance of spondylolisthesis in all three positions, height of the L1-S1 discs, disc bulge or herniation distance, AP diameter of the spinal canal, and translational motion. The data was analyzed and classified indicating the severity of disfunction or damage. The worst degeneration was at the L-4/L-5 and L-5/S-1 level, followed in severity by L-3/L-4.

The disc bulge distances of L-3/L-4 and L-4/L-5 were higher in the BD and HD subject groups. Also, the distance of L-4/L-5 was much higher in the HD group than in the BD group in the neutral position. The distances of L-4/L-5 were much higher in the BD and HD groups than in the ND and DD groups during flexion position, and that of L-3/L-4 was much higher in the HD group than in the ND and DD groups. The distances of L-4/L-5 and L-5/S-1 were much higher in the BD and HD groups during extension MRIs.


This study used MRI to analyze and compare four types of lumbar disc degeneration in patients with CLBP and found that the ND group represented a significantly younger demographic than that of the other three group members. This suggests that age is a likely contributor to DD in CLBP. The subjects in the BD group had a much longer mean pain duration than those in the ND group, suggesting a less successful clinical future outcome for those patients. There appeared to be little-to-no association between BMI and smoking history and CLBP in any of the subjects involved in this study.

There was a positive correlation between hours worked sitting at a desk—with those in the BD and HD groups working on average more than 60 hours per week and those in the ND and DD groups working fewer hours. Interestingly, the data collected indicated that most CLBP patients did not perform heavy manual labor at work and were highly educated—suggesting a strong connection between office work and CLBP. The MRI scans showed that lower lumbar disc segments (L-4/L-5 and L-5/S-1) were the most significantly degenerated in the CLBP patients, with lower disc height and displacement.




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