BACKGROUND: Lumbar disc degeneration seen on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is defined as loss of signal intensity and/or disc height, alone or in combination with other MRI findings. The MRI findings and thresholds used to define disc degeneration vary in the literature, and their associations with low back pain (LBP) remain uncertain. OBJECTIVE: To explore how various thresholds of lumbar disc degeneration alter the association between disc degeneration and self-reported LBP. METHODS: An exploratory, cross-sectional cohort study of a general population. Participants in the cohort 'Backs-on-Funen' had MRI scans and completed questionnaires about LBP at ages 41, 45 and 49 years. The MRI variables, signal intensity (Grades 0-3) and disc height (Grades 0-3), were dichotomised at different thresholds. Logistic regression analyses were used to determine associations. Arbitrarily, a difference in odds ratio (OR) of > 0.5 between thresholds was considered clinically relevant. Receiver Operating Characteristic curves were used to investigate differences between diagnostic values at each threshold. RESULTS: At age 41, the difference in ORs between signal loss and LBP exceeded 0.5 between the thresholds of ≥2 (OR = 2.02) and = 3 (OR = 2.57). Difference in area under the curves (AUC) was statistically significant (p = 0.02). At ages 45 and 49, the difference in ORs exceeded 0.5 between the thresholds of ≥2 and = 3, but the differences between AUC were not statistically significant. At age 41, the difference in ORs between disc height loss and LBP at the thresholds of ≥1 (OR = 1.44) and ≥ 2 (OR = 2.53) exceeded 0.5. Differences in AUC were statistically significant (p = 0.004). At age 49, differences in ORs exceeded 0.5 (OR = 2.49 at the ≥1 threshold, 1.84 at ≥2 and 0.89 at =3). Differences between AUC were not statistically significant. CONCLUSION: The results suggest that the thresholds used to define the presence of lumbar disc degeneration influence how strongly it is associated with LBP. Thresholds at more severe grades of disc signal and disc height loss were more strongly associated with LBP at age 41, but thresholds at moderate grades of disc degeneration were most strongly associated with LBP at ages 45 and 49.
Dragsbæk, L., Kjaer, P., Hancock, M. J., & Jensen, T. S. (2020). An exploratory study of different definitions and thresholds for lumbar disc degeneration assessed by MRI and their associations with low back pain using data from a cohort study of a general population. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-020-03268-4