OBJECTIVE This study aimed to determine the prognostic value of MRI variables to predict outcome in patients with herniated disc-related sciatica, and whether MRI could facilitate the decision making between early surgery and prolonged conservative care in these patients. METHODS A prospective observational evaluation of patients enrolled in a randomized trial with 1-year follow-up was completed. A total of 283 patients with sciatica who had a radiologically confirmed disc herniation were randomized either to surgery or to prolonged conservative care with surgery if needed. Outcome measures were recovery and leg pain severity. Recovery was registered on a 7-point Likert scale. Complete/near complete recovery was considered a satisfactory outcome. Leg pain severity was measured on a 0- to 100-mm visual analog scale. Multiple MRI characteristics of the degenerated disc herniation were independently scored by 3 spine experts. Cox models were used to study the influence of MRI variables on rate of recovery, and linear mixed models were used to determine the predictive value of MRI variables for leg pain severity during follow-up. The interaction of each MRI predictor with treatment allocation was tested. There were no study-specific conflicts of interest. RESULTS Baseline MRI variables associated with less leg pain severity were the reader's assessment of presence of nerve root compression (p < 0.001), and assessment of extrusion compared with protrusion of the disc herniation (p = 0.006). Both variables tended to be associated, but not significantly, with satisfactory outcome during follow-up (HR 1.45, 95% CI 0.93-2.24, and HR 1.24, 95% CI 0.96-1.61, respectively). The size of disc herniation at baseline was not associated with outcome. There was no significant change in the effects between treatment groups. CONCLUSIONS MRI assessment of the presence of nerve root compression and extrusion of a herniated disc at baseline was associated with less leg pain during 1-year follow-up, irrespective of a surgical or conservative treatment. MRI findings seem not to be helpful in determining which patients might fare better with early surgery compared with a strategy of prolonged conservative care. Clinical trial registration no.: ISRCTN26872154 ( controlled-trials.com ).
Keywords: MRI; RCT = randomized controlled trial; RDQ = Roland Disability Questionnaire; VAS = visual analog scale; degenerative; disc herniation; effect modification; nerve root compression; prognosis; sciatica.