Background: Muscle functional magnetic resonance imaging (mfMRI) measures transverse relaxation time (T2), and allows for determination of the spatial pattern of muscle activation. The purposes of this pilot study were to examine whether MRI-derived T2 or side-to-side differences in T2 (asymmetries) differ in low back muscles between subjects with acute low back pain (LBP) compared to asymptomatic controls, and to determine if a single osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) session alters these T2 properties immediately and 48-hours after treatment.
Methods: Subjects with non-specific acute LBP (mean score on 110 visual analog score = 3.02 +/- 2.81) and asymptomatic controls (n = 9/group) underwent an MRI, and subsequently the LBP subjects received OMT and then underwent another MRI. The LBP subjects reported back for an additional MRI 48-hours following their initial visit. T2 and T2 asymmetry were calculated from regions of interest for the psoas, quadratus lumborum (QL), multifidus, and iliocostalis lumborum/longissimus thoracis (IL/LT) muscles.
Results: No differences were observed between the groups when T2 was averaged for the left and right side muscles. However, the QL displayed a significantly greater T2 asymmetry in LBP subjects when compared to controls (29.1 +/- 4.3 vs. 15.9 +/- 4.1%; p = 0.05). The psoas muscle also displayed a relatively large, albeit non-significant, mean difference (22.7 +/- 6.9 vs. 9.5 +/- 2.8%; p = 0.11). In the subjects with LBP, psoas T2 asymmetry was significantly reduced immediately following OMT (25.3 +/- 6.9 to 6.1 +/- 1.8%, p = 0.05), and the change in LBP immediately following OMT was correlated with the change in psoas T2 asymmetry (r = 0.75, p = 0.02).
Conclusion: Collectively, this pilot work demonstrates the feasibility of mfMRI for quantification and localization of muscle abnormalities in patients with acute low back pain. Additionally, this pilot work provides insight into the mechanistic actions of OMT during acute LBP, as it suggests that it may attenuate muscle activity asymmetries of some of the intrinsic low back muscles.