Standardized Classification of Lumbar Spine Degeneration on Magnetic Resonance Imaging Reduces Intra- and Inter-subspecialty Variability

Curr Probl Diagn Radiol. 2022 Jul-Aug;51(4):491-496. doi: 10.1067/j.cpradiol.2021.08.001. Epub 2021 Aug 28.


Background and purpose: To determine the efficacy of standardized definitions of degenerative change in reducing variability in interpretation of lumbar spine magnetic resonance imaging within and between groups of subspecialty-trained neuroradiologists (NR) and musculoskeletal radiologists (MSK).

Materials and methods: Six radiologists, three from both NR and MSK groups were trained on a standardized classification system of degenerative change. After an 11-month washout period, they independently re-interpreted fifty exams at the L4-L5 and L5-S1 levels. Responses were converted to a six-point ordinal scale for the assessment of neural foraminal stenosis and spinal canal stenosis (SCS), three-point scale for lateral recess stenosis, and four-point scale for facet osteoarthritis (FO). Intra-subspecialty and inter-subspecialty analysis was performed using the weighted Cohen's kappa with a binary matrix of all reader pairs.

Results: Inter-subspecialty agreement improved from k=0.527 (moderate) to k=0.602 (substantial) for neural foraminal stenosis, from k=0.540 (moderate) to k=0.652 (substantial) for SCS, from k=0.0818 (slight) to k=0.337 (fair) for lateral recess stenosis, and from k=0.176 (slight) to k=0.495 (moderate) for FO. The NR group demonstrated improved intra-subspecialty agreement for the assessment of SCS, from k=0.368 (fair) to k=0.638 (substantial). The MSK group demonstrated improved intra-subspecialty agreement for the assessment of FO, from k=0.134 (slight) to k=0.413 (moderate). Intra-subspecialty agreement was similar for other parameters before and after training.

Conclusions: As result of the standardized definitions training, the NR and MSK groups each improved in one of the four parameters, while inter-subspecialty variability improved in all four parameters. These definitions may be useful in clinical practice across radiology subspecialties.

MeSH terms

  • Constriction, Pathologic / pathology
  • Humans
  • Lumbar Vertebrae* / diagnostic imaging
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging* / methods
  • Observer Variation
  • Reproducibility of Results