Refined Phenotyping of Modic Changes: Imaging Biomarkers of Prolonged Severe Low Back Pain and Disability

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Low back pain (LBP) is the world's most disabling condition. Modic changes (MC) are vertebral bone marrow changes adjacent to the endplates as noted on magnetic resonance imaging. The associations of specific MC types and patterns with prolonged, severe LBP and disability remain speculative. This study assessed the relationship of prolonged, severe LBP and back-related disability, with the presence and morphology of lumbar MC in a large cross-sectional population-based study of Southern Chinese.

We addressed the topographical and morphological dimensions of MC along with other magnetic resonance imaging phenotypes (eg, disc degeneration and displacement) on the basis of axial T1 and sagittal T2-weighted imaging of L1-S1. Prolonged severe LBP was defined as LBP lasting ≥30 days during the past year, and a visual analog scale severest pain intensity of at least 6/10. An Oswestry Disability Index score of 15% was regarded as significant disability. We also assessed subject demographics, occupation, and lifestyle factors.

In total, 1142 subjects (63% females, mean age 53 years) were assessed. Of these, 282 (24.7%) had MC (7.1% type I, 17.6% type II). MC subjects were older (P = 0.003), had more frequent disc displacements (P < 0.001) and greater degree of disc degeneration (P < 0.001) than non-MC subjects. In adjusted models, any MC (odds ratio [OR] 1.48, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.01–2.18), MC affecting whole anterior-posterior length (OR 1.62, 95% CI 1.04–2.51), and MC affecting 2/3 posterior length (OR 2.79, 95% CI 1.17–6.65) were associated with prolonged severe LBP. Type I MC tended to associate with pain more strongly than type II MC (OR 1.80, 95% CI 0.94–3.44 vs OR 1.36, 95% CI 0.88–2.09, respectively). Any MC (OR 1.47, 95% CI 1.04–2.10), type II MC (OR 1.56, 95% CI 1.06–2.31), MC affecting 2/3 posterior length (OR 2.96, 95% CI 1.27–6.89), and extensive MC (OR 1.95, 95% CI 1.21–3.15) were associated with disability. The strength of the associations increased with the number of MC.

This large-scale study is the first to definitively note MC types and specific morphologies to be independently associated with prolonged severe LBP and back-related disability. This proposed refined MC phenotype may have direct implications in clinical decision-making as to the development and management of LBP. Understanding of these imaging biomarkers can lead to new preventative and personalized therapeutics related to LBP.

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