Indices of Paraspinal Muscles Degeneration: Reliability and Association With Facet Joint Osteoarthritis

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Study Design:

A reliability and cross-sectional observational study.


To introduce a scoring system for visible fat infiltration in paraspinal muscles; to evaluate intertester and intratester reliability of this system and its relationship with indices of muscle density; to evaluate the association between indices of paraspinal muscle degeneration and facet joint osteoarthritis.

Summary of Background Data:

Current evidence suggests that the paraspinal muscles degeneration is associated with low back pain, facet joint osteoarthritis, spondylolisthesis, and degenerative disc disease. However, the evaluation of paraspinal muscles on computed tomography is not radiological routine, probably because of absence of simple and reliable indices of paraspinal degeneration.


One hundred fifty consecutive computed tomography scans of the lower back (N=75) or abdomen (N=75) were evaluated. Mean radiographic density (in Hounsfield units) and SD of the density of multifidus and erector spinae were evaluated at the L4–L5 spinal level. A new index of muscle degeneration, radiographic density ratio=muscle density/SD of density, was calculated. To evaluate the visible fat infiltration in paraspinal muscles, we proposed a 3-graded scoring system. The prevalence of facet joint osteoarthritis was also evaluated. Intraclass correlation and κ statistics were used to evaluate inter-rater and intra-rater reliability. Logistic regression examined the association between paraspinal muscle indices and facet joint osteoarthritis.


Intra-rater reliability for fat infiltration score (κ) ranged between 0.87 and 0.92; inter-rater reliability between 0.70 and 0.81. Intra-rater reliability (intraclass correlation) for mean density of paraspinal muscles ranged between 0.96 and 0.99, inter-rater reliability between 0.95 and 0.99; SD intra-rater reliability ranged between 0.82 and 0.91, inter-rater reliability between 0.80 and 0.89. Significant associations (P<0.01) were found between facet joint osteoarthritis, fat infiltration score, and radiographic density ratio.


Two suggested indices of paraspinal muscle degeneration showed excellent reliability and were significantly associated with facet joint osteoarthritis. Additional studies are needed to evaluate the associations with other spinal degeneration features and low back pain.

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