Objective: Cartilage loss is central to the development of joint failure in arthritis. However, radiographic assessment of cartilage loss is highly unreliable. This study examined the accuracy and reproducibility of a noninvasive technique for quantifying the volume of articular cartilage in the metacarpophalangeal joints of the hand by use of three-dimensional (3D) MR imaging.
Subjects and methods: Eight metacarpophalangeal joints (four normal, one rheumatoid arthritic, and three normal cadaveric) each were imaged three times with a 1.5-T clinical MR imaging scanner with a small partial volume coil and a fat-saturated 3D spoiled gradient-echo sequence optimized for delineating articular cartilage. The volumes of cartilage over the metacarpal and phalangeal surfaces were quantified by summing the voxels within segmented 3D reconstructions of the images. Cartilage volumes in the three cadaver joints also were estimated by scraping cartilage off the articular surfaces and measuring water displacement in graduated cylinders. These values were used as the gold standard for assessing the accuracy of cartilage volume quantification by MR imaging.
Results: The fat-saturated sequence discriminated the articular cartilage from adjacent joint structures with high contrast and high spatial resolution. Cartilage volumes determined by MR imaging for the different subjects ranged from 115 microliters to 222 microliters for metacarpal cartilage and from 34 microliters to 86 microliters for proximal phalangeal cartilage. Accuracy errors for quantifying cartilage volume by MR imaging were -1.8% (95% confidence interval, -3.5% to -0.7%) for metacarpal cartilage and 9.1% (4.3% to 14.7%) for proximal phalangeal cartilage. Reproducibility errors were 5.2% (95% confidence interval, 2.9% to 7.6%) and 9.9% (5.4% to 15.1%), respectively.
Conclusion: Fat-suppressed T1-weighted 3D MR imaging provides sufficient contrast and spatial resolution to allow accurate and reproducible quantification of articular cartilage volume in the metacarpophalangeal joints of the hand. This technique may be useful for monitoring cartilage loss in patients with arthritis.