Magnetic resonance imaging of the axial skeleton in rheumatoid disease

Best Pract Res Clin Rheumatol. 2004 Dec;18(6):881-907. doi: 10.1016/j.berh.2004.06.005.


The axial skeleton is a target for both spondyloarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. While conventional radiography allows the clear documentation of the late stages of inflammatory changes, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is sensitive enough to depict early inflammatory lesions. It is, therefore, of particular importance for radiologists and clinicians to know the MRI appearances of inflammatory changes of the axial skeleton in rheumatoid diseases. Typical lesions in ankylosing spondylitis and related conditions comprise spondylitis (Romanus lesion), spondylodiscitis (Andersson lesion), arthritis of the apophyseal joints, the costovertebral and costotransverse joints, and insufficiency fractures of the ankylosed vertebral spine (non-inflammatory type of Andersson lesion). Sacroiliitis is associated with chronic changes such as sclerosis, erosions, transarticular bone bridges, periarticular accumulation of fatty tissue and ankylosis. In addition, acute findings include capsulitis, juxta-articular osteitis and the enhancement of the joint space after contrast medium administration. Another important sign of spondyloarthritis is enthesitis, which affects the interspinal and supraspinal ligaments of the vertebral spine and the interosseous ligaments in the retroarticular space of the sacroiliac joints. The main site of manifestation of spinal involvement in rheumatoid arthritis is the cervical spine. Typical changes are the destruction of the atlantoaxial complex by pannus tissue with subsequent atlantoaxial subluxation, basilar impression and erosion of the dens axis. Changes in the lower segments of the cervical spine are destruction of the apophyseal joints resulting in the so-called stepladder phenomenon. Because of the uniform response of the discovertebral complex to different noxae, a number of different conditions must be distinguished on the basis of the patient's clinical findings and history in combination with their imaging appearance. These conditions comprise degenerative disc disease, septic spondylodiscitis, Scheuermann's disease, Paget's disease and diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH).

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Rheumatology / methods
  • Spine / pathology*
  • Spondylitis, Ankylosing / diagnosis*