An October 2018 study compared MRI’s of 966 lower back pain (LBP) patients to introduce a simplified, reliable method of classification for common endplate lesions. The study also noted associations between endplate lesions and variables, including age, rate of disc degeneration, sex, and Modic changes. The researchers then demonstrated the new system’s reliability by repeated observational rating over a period of days, using outside raters evaluating a percentage of the total sample results. The demographic and physiological findings of the study were largely in agreement with previous IVD endplate lesion studies but also added novel findings that had not previously been published.
The subjects in the study were all LBP sufferers under the age of 70, excluding patients with a history of back surgery, spondylodiscitis, or vertebral fractures. Data including age and sex were collected on all patients, and images were scanned and evaluated by an experienced radiologist.
A scoring and classification system for the Lumbar IVD spaces was noted on the images, with the descriptions:
- Normal—Physiological curvature of both endplates, without the detection of any visual lesions in any of the sagittal MRI IVD space slices.
- Wavy/Irregular—Curvature in at least one of the endplates, without detectable IVD lesions.
- Notched—The presence of at least one circular small or V-shaped lesion on an MRI saggital slice.
- Schmort’s Node—Clearly evident vertebral endplate deep focal defect, where the endplate is rounded, with a smooth margin
- Fracture—Thickened bone fragment at the edge of an endplate, or any evident fracture of the endplate with similarly-sized fragments
A sampling of the image data was also evaluated multiple times over a period of two days by independent raters to ensure observer reliability. To determine how often each type of endplate lesion appeared associated with disc degeneration and alterations of the MRI signals, subgroups of the study subjects were created, and comparisons were made based on age and sex. A scatter-plot chart was created to track Modic changes, and the relative percentages were calculated and identified against an established threshold.
The findings indicated minimal association between patient age at the time of the scan and disc degeneration, as well as minimal Modic changes in older patients, as opposed to entire population studied. The most common types of endplate lesion observed were the “notched” and “Schmorl’s Node” type lesions, and both were more common in male patients than in females. Few of the patients studied had “Wavy/irregular” or “fracture” lesions, which occurred in nearly equal numbers of male and female subjects.
There was a strongly evident correlation between disc degeneration and endplate defects across all LBP subjects in the study. All lesion types increased in all IVD levels where disc degeneration was evident. There was a significant increase in “wavy/irregular” endplate types whenever severe disc degeneration was present. This can be considered a reliable marker for the process of extreme disc degeneration.
Signal alterations were found to be associated with endplate lesions, specifically in “notched,” “wavy/irregular,” and “Schmorl’s Node” endplates. There were nearly twice as many notches in Modic changes of types 1 or 2 corner signal alterations. Schmorl’s nodes showed even more evidence of association.
Though this study was conducted with the intention of developing a reliable method of endplate defect classification in LBP patients and to find correlations in the distribution of LBP by analyzing a large population of subjects via MRI, previous studies have indicated a correlation between back pain and lesions—something this study did not specifically address.
The results of this study agreed with previous studies that indicated male LBP patients are more likely to have IVD lesions than female patients, though similar lesion-levels were observed in male and female patients who showed evidence of severe disc degeneration, as is found in Schmorl’s nodes and in those with disc fractures.
Most of the patients showed no evidence of endplate lesions on the lumbar MRIs. Of those who who did have lesions, most (18.7 %) experienced them only in a single IVD level, and males were more likely than females (20.7 % to 16.7 %) to show evidence of lesions. Progressively fewer subjects had lesions involving more IVD levels.
There was a very slight correlation between age and lesions in this and some previous studies. That correlation appears to be stronger in the female LBP population than in males—a new observation that has not been discussed in previous studies.
The association between endplate defects and disc degeneration was evident, especially where “wavy/irregular” endplates occurred, indicating severe degeneration of the discs. Signal alterations and endplate lesions also showed a positive correlation, specifically in “wavy/irregular,” “notched,” endplates. This association was significantly evident in Schmorl’s nodes.