Background Posterior instability is a pathologic movement occurring in the spondylolytic cleft. Purpose To present a new classification system for the evaluation of spondylolytic cleft by positional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and determine the prevalence of the different types. Material and Methods A total of 176 segments of the lumbar spine with spondylolysis or isthmic spondylolisthesis were examined using positional MRI. Scans were obtained in neutral sitting, flexion, and extension positions. No visible movement in the cleft was defined as type A, fluid displaced into the cleft as type BI, displacement of the flava ligaments at the level of the cleft as type BII, and intraspinal cysts arising from the spondylolytic cleft as type BIII. The movements were characterized by a radiologist and a neurosurgeon experienced in positional MRI. Clinical findings were correlated with the different types of instability. Results A high agreement was found between the two observers. In total, 131 segments were characterized as type A, six as type BI, 24 as type BII, and 10 as type BIII. In five segments, the type differed between the right and the left side. Two patients had a mixed type BI/II, another two patients had a mixed type BII/III, and one patient had a mixed type BI/III. Patients with type BII and BIII instabilities suffered more often from radicular symptoms compared to patients without any instability. Conclusion The presented classification might help to better understand and study changes encountered in the spondylolytic cleft in patients with spondylolysis and isthmic spondylolisthesis using positional MRI.
Keywords: Spine; classification; positional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); posterior instability; spondylolisthesis; spondylolysis.