Does magnetic resonance imaging predict future low back pain? A systematic review

Eur J Pain. 2014 Jul;18(6):755-65. doi: 10.1002/j.1532-2149.2013.00427.x. Epub 2013 Nov 26.


Background and objective: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has the potential to identify pathology responsible for low back pain (LBP). However, the importance of findings on MRI remains controversial. We aimed to systematically review whether MRI findings of the lumbar spine predict future LBP in different samples with and without LBP.

Databases and data treatment: MEDLINE, CINAHL and EMBASE databases were searched. Included were prospective cohort studies investigating the relationship between baseline MRI abnormalities of the lumbar spine and clinically important LBP outcome at follow-up. We excluded cohorts with specific diseases as the cause of their LBP. Associations between MRI findings and LBP pain outcomes were extracted from eligible studies.

Results: A total of 12 studies met the inclusion criteria. Six studies presented data on participants with current LBP; one included a sample with no current LBP, three included a sample with no history of LBP and two included mixed samples. Due to small sample size, poor overall quality and the heterogeneity between studies in terms of participants, MRI findings and clinical outcomes investigated, it was not possible to pool findings. No consistent associations between MRI findings and outcomes were identified. Single studies reported significant associations for Modic changes type 1 with pain, disc degeneration with disability in samples with current LBP and disc herniation with pain in a mixed sample.

Conclusions: The limited number, heterogeneity and overall quality of the studies do not permit definite conclusions on the association of MRI findings of the lumbar spine with future LBP (PROSPERO: CRD42012002342).

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain / diagnosis*
  • Low Back Pain / pathology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / standards*
  • Predictive Value of Tests*