Future Knee Pain Predicted by MRI


Osteoarthritis can be very debilitating due the symptoms it presents. It can cause limited range of motion, loss of flexibility, swelling, stiffness and pain. Along the rheumatism which is another form of arthritis, it is the leading cause of disability among adults in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Data from the 2010-2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) showed that 52.5 million adults aged 18 years and older have been diagnosed with arthritis. This figure makes up nearly 23% of the population.

While osteoarthritis (OA) affects various joints in the body including our hips and feet, OA of the knees is the most common form due to the frequency of use throughout our lifetime.


Predicting the Development of Osteoarthritis

In an effort to predict and possible prevent the onset or occurrence of osteoarthritis, researchers have looked for ways to assess high risk patients before the disease takes full form.

One of the issues with the development of knee osteoarthritis is that individuals may have normal x-rays even when they are at high risk of developing the disease in the immediate future. When using this method, those who are overweight or have had previous injuries to their knee/s will not be able get the benefit of knowing in advance.

Researchers at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine recently discovered that using MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and assessing lesions in the knee region, they can predict a patient’s risk for developing knee osteoarthritis in the next 36 months.

Leena Sharma, lead investigator for the study states that in doing so, they can implement early intervention strategies since the changes in the lesions seen in the MRI work as an early warning sign.


Details of the Study

The research included 849 participants who were part of the Osteoarthritis Initiative. The Osteoarthritis Initiative is a study that involved individuals who are at high risk of developing knee OA and undergo annual evaluations. All patients did not have any evidence of osteoarthritis on their knee x-rays.

By assessing bone marrow lesions, meniscus tears and cartilage damage on the MRI, the team learned that worsening damage in the MRIs after a 36 month period increased the risk of developing knee OA in the immediate future or experiencing knee stiffness, pain or swelling.

In the past, scientists weren’t sure whether or not the knee lesions played a part in future OA development or knee symptoms. The study provides proof that monitoring the development of the lesions offer a clue on the health deterioration of the joint and aren’t just part of the natural aging process.

The benefit of the MRI results give patients and their physicians the ability to implement aggressive preventive treatment immediately to delay or possibly prevent the development of knee OA.


Criteria for Higher Risk of Osteoarthritis

Participants who were included in the study fell under a high risk group had the following factors:

  • 21% were overweight
  • 71% performed activities that involved frequent bending of the knees
  • 54% climbed more than 10 flights of stairs of most days
  • 35% lifting or moving objects that were 25 lbs. or more at least once in the past month
  • 13% who engaged in deep knee bending or squatting for 30 minutes or more in at least 1 day during the past month