A systematic clinical literature review 1 found evidence that high intensity zones (HIZ) on MRI scans may indicate a potential risk factor in lower back pain (LBP). The review authors suggest further studies are needed to understand the relevance of lumbar biomarkers in imaging to properly diagnose and classify LBP as it relates to HIZ.
What’s at Stake?
Various lumbar phenotypes have been identified and studied in the past to determine their effects on patients suffering from LBP. MRI is a common LBP diagnostic tool used by practitioners treating patients with LBP, but its effectiveness in identifying the sources of LBP has been questioned by researchers over the years. For three decades, the debate over whether and how imaged biomarkers may relate to LBP has remained inconclusive. This extensive literature review was conducted to seek clarity on how HIZ in MRI may indicate a reliable diagnostic tool for clinicians treating patients with LBP.
A total of 756 studies were scanned for data relating to search terms that were indicative of their usefulness to the researchers involved in this review. Six studies—five comparison studies, and one cross-sectional population-based study—were ultimately chosen for their relevance, and their data was reviewed in the context of an association between HIZ and LBP. The literature chosen was published between 2000 and 2015 and involved studies of symptomatic subjects and asymptomatic controls between the ages of 21 to 50 years of age.
Three of the comparative studies demonstrated a clinically-significant association between HIZ and LBP. In one study, over 32 percent of the patients with LBP exhibited HIZ in at least one disc. Of these patients, 5.3 percent showed multi-segmental HIZs, with 3.9 percent showing HIZs in the adjacent discs. Furthermore, 57.5 percent of the HIZs subjects had symptoms of LBP, while only .02 percent of the patients without HIZs were symptomatic. There was a correlation between higher LBP incidence and HIZs in the lower lumbar spine or with multiple HIZs, but these statistics were considered clinically-insignificant. In another study, 61 percent of patients with HIZs experienced LBP, compared to only 32 percent of those without HIZs. The median rate of HIZs was lower in subjects without LBP than in those who were symptomatic.
While the data studied in this review indicates a higher prevalence of LBP in patients with identifiable HIZs in imaging studies, other studies have found little-to-no evidence of this correlation, indicating the need for further studies and reviews on the nature of HIZs and LBP in symptomatic and asymptomatic patients.
This systematic literature review suggests an association between HIZs and LBP. However, the authors express the need for further study of the LBP pathology and HIZs morphology/topography as they relate to various spinal phenotypes to determine how variant biomarkers on MRI studies may help determine the existence and source of LBP in patients.