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MRI and X-ray in axial spondyloarthritis: the relationship between inflammatory and structural changes

Walter P Maksymowych

Author Affiliations

562 Heritage Medical Research Building, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, T6G 2S2 Canada

Arthritis Research & Therapy 2012, 14:207  doi:10.1186/ar3786

Published: 19 April 2012


Demonstration of an association between inflammation and spinal ankylosis has been challenging. Until the advent of MRI, prospective study was not possible due to inaccessibility of tissue. Recent studies using MRI have described an association between the presence of bone edema at vertebral corners on MRI and the subsequent development of syndesmophytes at the corresponding vertebral corners on radiography. Although reports have also highlighted the development of new syndesmophytes where the baseline MRI shows no inflammation, MRI has limited sensitivity for detection of spinal inflammation that is clearly evident on histopathology. There are also crucial methodological challenges because radiographic assessment is limited to the anterior corners of the cervical and lumbar spine while MRI lesions in the cervical spine are often small while spurious inflammatory signal is common in the lumbar spine. Follow-up MRI evaluation in two independent studies has also shown that inflammatory lesions that resolve after anti-TNF therapy are more prone to develop into syndesmophytes. It may be possible that very early inflammatory lesions resolve completely without sequelae if anti-TNF therapy is introduced before new bone formation becomes largely autonomous. For an individual patient the overall development of new bone during anti-TNF therapy may therefore depend on the balance between the number of early and more mature inflammatory lesions. Clinical trials of anti-TNF agents in early spondyloarthritis together with prospective MRI studies will allow more detailed testing of this hypothesis as a major priority for the research agenda in spondyloarthritis.