Do knee abnormalities visualised on MRI explain knee pain in knee osteoarthritis? A systematic review

Ann Rheum Dis. 2011 Jan;70(1):60-7. doi: 10.1136/ard.2010.131904. Epub 2010 Sep 9.


Objective: To systematically evaluate the association between MRI findings (cartilage defects, bone marrow lesions (BML), osteophytes, meniscal lesion, effusion/synovitis, ligamentous abnormalities, subchondral cysts and bone attrition) and pain in patients with knee osteoarthritis (OA) in order to establish the relevance of such findings when assessing an individual patient.

Methods: The Medline, Web of Science, Embase and Cumulative Index to Nursing & Allied Health Literature (CINAHL) databases up to March 2010 were searched without language restriction to find publications with data on the association between MRI findings of knee OA (exposure of interest) and knee pain (outcome). The quality of included papers was scored using a predefined criteria set. The levels of evidence were determined qualitatively using best evidence synthesis (based on guidelines on systematic review from the Cochrane Collaboration Back Review Group). Five levels of evidence were used: strong, moderate, limited, conflicting and no evidence.

Results: A total of 22 papers were included; 5 had longitudinal and 17 cross-sectional data. In all, 13 reported a single MRI finding and 9 multiple MRI findings. Moderate levels of evidence were found for BML and effusion/synovitis. The OR for BML ranged from 2.0 (no CI was given) to 5.0 (2.4 to 10.5). The OR of having pain when effusion/synovitis was present ranged between 3.2 (1.04 to 5.3) and 10.0 (1.1 to 149). The level of evidences between other MRI findings and pain were limited or conflicting.

Conclusions: Knee pain in OA is associated with BML and effusion/synovitis suggesting that these features may indicate the origin of pain in knee OA. However, due to the moderate level of evidence these features need to be explored further.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Evidence-Based Medicine / methods
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Knee Joint / pathology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Osteoarthritis, Knee / complications*
  • Osteoarthritis, Knee / pathology
  • Pain / etiology*
  • Pain / pathology