Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of articular cartilage in knee osteoarthritis (OA): morphological assessment

Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2006;14 Suppl A:A46-75. doi: 10.1016/j.joca.2006.02.026. Epub 2006 May 19.


Objective: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a three-dimensional imaging technique with unparalleled ability to evaluate articular cartilage. This report reviews the current status of morphological assessment of cartilage with quantitative MRI (qMRI), and its relevance for identifying disease status, and monitoring progression and treatment response in knee osteoarthritis (OA).

Method: An international panel of experts in MRI of knee OA, with direct experience in the analysis of cartilage morphology with qMRI, reviewed the existing published and unpublished data on the subject, and debated the findings at the OMERACT-OARSI Workshop on Imaging technologies (December 2002, Bethesda, MA) with scientists and clinicians from academia, the pharmaceutical industry and the regulatory agencies. This report reviews (1) MRI pulse sequence considerations for morphological analysis of articular cartilage; (2) techniques for segmenting cartilage; (3) semi-quantitative scoring of cartilage status; and (4) technical validity (accuracy), precision (reproducibility) and sensitivity to change of quantitative measures of cartilage morphology.

Results: Semi-quantitative scores of cartilage status have been shown to display adequate reliability, specificity and sensitivity, and to detect lesion progression at reasonable observation periods (1-2 years). Quantitative assessment of cartilage morphology (qMRI), with fat-suppressed gradient echo sequences, and appropriate image analysis techniques, displays high accuracy and adequate precision (e.g., root-mean-square standard deviation medial tibia=61 microl) for cross-sectional and longitudinal studies in OA patients. Longitudinal studies suggest that changes of cartilage volume of the order of -4% to -6% occur per annum in OA in most knee compartments (e.g., -90 microl in medial tibia). Annual changes in cartilage volume exceed the precision errors and appear to be associated with clinical symptoms as well as with time to knee arthroplasty.

Conclusions: MRI provides reliable and quantitative data on cartilage status throughout most compartments of the knee, with robust acquisition protocols for multi-center trials now being available. MRI of cartilage has tremendous potential for large scale epidemiological studies of OA progression, and for clinical trials of treatment response to structure modifying OA drugs.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cartilage, Articular / pathology*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Diagnostic Errors
  • Humans
  • Knee Joint / pathology*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Observer Variation
  • Osteoarthritis, Knee / pathology*
  • Prognosis
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sensitivity and Specificity