Background: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is frequently performed during follow-up in patients with known lumbar-disk herniation and persistent symptoms of sciatica. The association between findings on MRI and clinical outcome is controversial.
Methods: We studied 283 patients in a randomized trial comparing surgery and prolonged conservative care for sciatica and lumbar-disk herniation. Patients underwent MRI at baseline and after 1 year. We used a 4-point scale to assess disk herniation on MRI, ranging from 1 for "definitely present" to 4 for "definitely absent." A favorable clinical outcome was defined as complete or nearly complete disappearance of symptoms at 1 year. We compared proportions of patients with a favorable outcome among those with a definite absence of disk herniation and those with a definite, probable, or possible presence of disk herniation at 1 year. The area under the receiver-operating-characteristic (ROC) curve was used to assess the prognostic accuracy of the 4-point scores regarding a favorable or unfavorable outcome, with 1 indicating perfect discriminatory value and 0.5 or less indicating no discriminatory value.
Results: At 1 year, 84% of the patients reported having a favorable outcome. Disk herniation was visible in 35% with a favorable outcome and in 33% with an unfavorable outcome (P=0.70). A favorable outcome was reported in 85% of patients with disk herniation and 83% without disk herniation (P=0.70). MRI assessment of disk herniation did not distinguish between patients with a favorable outcome and those with an unfavorable outcome (area under ROC curve, 0.48).
Conclusions: MRI performed at 1-year follow-up in patients who had been treated for sciatica and lumbar-disk herniation did not distinguish between those with a favorable outcome and those with an unfavorable outcome. (Funded by the Netherlands Organization for Health Research and Development and the Hoelen Foundation; Controlled Clinical Trials number, ISRCTN26872154.).