Impact of Patient-Reported Symptom Information on Agreement in the MRI Diagnosis of Presumptive Lumbar Spine Pain Generator

AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2021 Oct;217(4):947-956. doi: 10.2214/AJR.20.25210. Epub 2021 Jan 13.


BACKGROUND. Lumbar spine MRI is associated with a high prevalence of interpretive errors by radiologists. Treating physicians can obtain symptom information, correlate symptoms with MRI findings, and distinguish presumptive pain generators from incidental abnormalities. OBJECTIVE. The purpose of this study was to capture symptom information using a patient questionnaire, review lumbar spine MRI examinations with and without symptom information, diagnose pain generators, and compare MRI diagnoses with clinical reference diagnoses. METHODS. In this prospective study, 120 participants (70 men and 50 women; median age, 64 years; interquartile range, 49.5-74 years) were recruited from patients referred for lumbar spine injections between February and June 2019. Participants completed electronic questionnaires regarding their symptoms before receiving the injections. For three research arms, six radiologists diagnosed pain generators in MRI studies reviewed with symptom information from questionnaires, MRI studies reviewed without symptom information, and MRI reports. Interreading agreement was analyzed. Blinded to the questionnaire results, the radiologists who performed injections obtained patient histories, correlated symptoms with MRI findings, and diagnosed presumptive pain generators. These diagnoses served as clinical reference standards. Pain generators were categorized by type, level, and side and were compared using kappa statistics. Diagnostic certainty was recorded using numeric values (0-100) and was compared using Wilcoxon rank-sum test RESULTS. When compared with the reference standard, agreement for the type, level, and side of pain generator was almost perfect in MRI examinations reviewed with symptom information (κ = 0.82-0.90), fair to moderate in MRI examinations reviewed without symptom information (κ = 0.28-0.51) (all p < .001), and fair to moderate in MRI reports (κ = 0.27-0.45) (all p < .001). Interreading agreement was almost perfect when MRI examinations were reviewed with symptom information (κ = 0.82-0.90) but was only moderate without symptom information (κ = 0.42-0.56) (all p < .001). Diagnostic certainty levels were highest for radiologists performing injections (mean [± SD], 90.0 ± 9.9) and were significantly higher for MRI review with symptom information versus without symptom information (means for reading 1, 84.6 ± 13.1 vs 62.9 ± 20.7; p < .001). CONCLUSION. In lumbar spine MRI, presumptive pain generators diagnosed using symptom information from electronic questionnaires showed almost perfect agreement with pain generators diagnosed using symptom information from direct patient interviews. CLINICAL IMPACT. Patient-reported symptom information from a brief questionnaire can be correlated with MRI findings to distinguish presumptive pain generators from incidental abnormalities.

Keywords: MRI; lumbar spine; pain generator; questionnaire; symptom information.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Low Back Pain / etiology
  • Lumbar Vertebrae / diagnostic imaging*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Health Questionnaire*
  • Prospective Studies