Study design: This study was designed to investigate the morphologic changes in contrast-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging that occur during conservative treatment of patients with unilateral leg pain resulting from herniated nucleus pulposus without significant lumbar canal stenosis.
Objectives: To compare the morphologic results with clinical outcomes to ascertain whether enhanced magnetic resonance imaging contributes to the management of lumbar disc herniation.
Summary of background data: Contrast-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging has already been reported to be useful in the postoperative examination of the lumbar spine and in visualization of symptomatic nerve roots. However, there have been few reports about its usefulness in the conservative management of herniated nucleus pulposus or about the correlation between herniated nucleus pulposus regression and enhanced effect. The study population consisted of 48 patients with radiculopathy. All patients primarily reported unilateral leg pain, and 94% had positive tension signs. Additionally, 38% exhibited muscle weakness corresponding to the symptomatic nerve root.
Methods: All patients were studied twice or more using gadolinium-magnetic resonance imaging during conservative therapy, at a mean interval of 191 days. Changes in the size of the herniated nucleus pulposus on precontrast images fell into four categories, with changes in enhancement on postcontrast images classified into two categories: "enlargement" and "no change."
Results: In all cases of migrating type herniated nucleus pulposus, circular enhancement was seen on postcontrast images. In 17 of 22 cases, the enhanced area gradually thickened and intruded into the migrated disc materials as the size of the herniated nucleus pulposus decreased; the herniated nucleus pulposus disappeared in nine cases and showed a marked decrease in seven cases. These cases showed good clinical courses of sciatica. In the other five patients, in whom there were no changes in the enhanced area, there was less of a tendency for the herniated nucleus pulposus to decrease in size, and there were poorer clinical results. In six cases of extruding-type herniated nucleus pulposus, no enhanced effects were observed throughout the follow-up period. The other 20 cases showed enhancement that was relatively weaker than that of migrating disc herniation. Extension or expansion of the enhanced area was observed in the follow-up images of 15 cases, though only four showed obvious changes in the size of the herniated nucleus pulposus. These 15 cases had better clinical results than the other cases, in which enhanced effects did not change or were not observed.
Conclusion: Contrast-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging is a useful prognostic parameter, and multiple use contributes to the proper management of lumbar disc herniation.