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Imaging of degenerative lumbar intervertebral discs; linking anatomy, pathology and imaging
  1. Ashok Adams1,
  2. Oran Roche2,
  3. Asif Mazumder3,
  4. Indran Davagnanam4,
  5. Kshitij Mankad5
  1. 1The Royal London Hospital, Barts Health NHS Trust, London, UK
  2. 2Department of Radiology, Barts Health NHS Trust, London, UK
  3. 3St George's Healthcare NHS Trust, Tooting, London, UK
  4. 4Department of Neuroradiology, National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London, UK
  5. 5Department of Neuroradiology, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Ashok Adams, The Royal London Hospital, BartsHealth NHS Trust, Whitechapel Road, London E1 1BB, UK; ashokadams{at}


Low back pain is a common medical condition that has significant implications for healthcare providers and the UK economy. Low back pain can be classified as ‘specific’ in which an underlying pathophysiological mechanism is identified (eg, herniated intervertebral disc). Advanced imaging should be performed in this situation and in those patients in whom systemic disease is strongly suspected. In the majority (approximately 90%), low back pain in ‘non specific’ and there is a weak correlation with imaging abnormalities. This is an area of ongoing research and remains controversial in terms of imaging approach and treatment (eg, theory of discogenic pain, interpretation and treatment of endplate changes). With regards Modic endplate changes, current research suggests that an infective component may be involved that may identify novel potential treatments in patients with chronic low back pain refractory to other treatment modalities. MRI is the imaging modality of choice for the assessment of degenerative changes in intervertebral discs. MRI has superior soft tissue contrast resolution when compared to other imaging modalities (eg, plain radiography, CT). An understanding of normal anatomy and MR appearances of intervertebral discs, particularly with regards to how these appearances change with advancing age, is required to aid image interpretation. Knowledge of the spectrum of degenerative processes that may occur in the intervertebral discs is required in order to identify and explain abnormal MRI appearances. As the communication of MRI findings may guide therapeutic decision making and surgical intervention, the terminology used by radiologists must be accurate and consistent. Therefore, description of degenerative disc changes in the current paper is based on the most up-to-date recommendations, the aim being to aid reporting by radiologists and interpretation of reports by referring clinicians.

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