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01.12.2018 | Research | Ausgabe 1/2018 Open Access

Scoliosis and Spinal Disorders 1/2018

The association of high-intensity zones on MRI and low back pain: a systematic review

Scoliosis and Spinal Disorders > Ausgabe 1/2018
Masatoshi Teraguchi, Rita Yim, Jason Pui-Yin Cheung, Dino Samartzis



Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the lumbar spine is commonly used to identify the source of low back pain (LBP); however, its use has been questionable. Throughout the years, numerous lumbar phenotypes (e.g., endplate abnormalities, Modic changes, black disc) have been studied as possible pain generators. High-intensity zones (HIZs) are of particular interest as they may represent annular tears. However, for over three decades, there has been heated debate as to whether these imaging biomarkers are synonymous with LBP. Therefore, the following study addressed a systematic review of the reported literature addressing the relationship of HIZs and LBP.


A systematic review was conducted via MEDLINE, SCOPUS, Cochrane, PubMed, PubMed Central, EMBASE via Ovid, and Web of Science with the following search terms: “HIZ,” “high intensity zone,” or “high intensity zones” and “low back pain,” “pain,” “lumbago,” and/or “sciatica.” Specific exclusion criteria were also maintained. Two independent reviewers searched the literature, selected the studies, and extracted the data.


We identified six studies from our search strategy that met the inclusion criteria from a total of 756 possible studies. One cross-sectional population-based study and five comparison studies were identified, which provided information regarding the prevalence of HIZs. The prevalence of HIZs was 3 to 61% in subjects with LBP and 2 to 3% in subjects without LBP. Only three studies suggested a significant association between the presence of HIZ and LBP with or without sciatica.


Our systematic review has found evidence that HIZs may be a possible risk factor for LBP; however, a mismatch of the clinical relevance of HIZs between studies still remains. The available evidence is limited by small sample size, heterogeneous study populations, and lack of standardized imaging methods for phenotyping. HIZs may be important lumbar biomarkers that demand further investigation and should be considered in the global imaging assessment of the spine, which may have immense clinical utility. Further large-scale studies with standardized imaging and classification techniques as well as the assessment of patterns of HIZs are necessary to better understand their role with LBP development.
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