Objective: To compare accuracy of ultrasound and MRI for detecting focal peripheral nerve pathology, excluding idiopathic carpal or cubital tunnel syndromes.
Methods: We performed a retrospective review of patients referred for neuromuscular ultrasound to identify patients who had ultrasound and MRI of the same limb for suspected brachial plexopathy or mononeuropathies, excluding carpal/cubital tunnel syndromes. Ultrasound and MRI results were compared to diagnoses determined by surgical or, if not performed, clinical/electrodiagnostic evaluation.
Results: We identified 53 patients who had both ultrasound and MRI of whom 46 (87%) had nerve pathology diagnosed by surgical (n = 39) or clinical/electrodiagnostic (n = 14) evaluation. Ultrasound detected the diagnosed nerve pathology (true positive) more often than MRI (43/46 vs 31/46, p < 0.001). Nerve pathology was correctly excluded (true negative) with equal frequency by MRI and ultrasound (both 6/7). In 25% (13/53), ultrasound was accurate (true positive or true negative) when MRI was not. These pathologies were typically (10/13) long (>2 cm) and only occasionally (2/13) outside the MRI field of view. MRI missed multifocal pathology identified with ultrasound in 6 of 7 patients, often (5/7) because pathology was outside the MRI field of view.
Conclusions: Imaging frequently detects peripheral nerve pathology and contributes to the differential diagnosis in patients with mononeuropathies and brachial plexopathies. Ultrasound is more sensitive than MRI (93% vs 67%), has equivalent specificity (86%), and better identifies multifocal lesions than MRI. In sonographically accessible regions ultrasound is the preferred initial imaging modality for anatomic evaluation of suspected peripheral nervous system lesions.