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Bone marrow edema and osteitis in rheumatoid arthritis: the imaging perspective

Fiona M McQueen

Author Affiliations

Department of Molecular Medicine and Pathology, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Auckland, 85 Park Road, Grafton, Auckland, 1023 New Zealand

Arthritis Research & Therapy 2012, 14:224  doi:10.1186/ar4035

Published: 28 September 2012


Magnetic resonance imaging bone marrow edema is an imaging feature that has been described in many conditions, including osteomyelitis, overuse syndromes, avascular necrosis, trauma, and inflammatory arthritides. In rheumatoid arthritis (RA), bone edema has special significance as it has been shown to be a common and widespread lesion that is often apparent at the hands and wrists but has also been described elsewhere, including the feet. It may occur in early or late disease and has been shown in several large cohort studies to have major negative implications for prognosis. It is the strongest predictor of erosive progression yet to be identified and characteristically occurs in those patients with the most aggressive and potentially disabling disease. In patients with undifferentiated arthritis, bone edema also predicts progression to criteria-positive RA, both independently and to a greater extent when combined with anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide status or rheumatoid factor positivity. Its histological correlate in the late stages of RA has been shown to be osteitis, in which the bone marrow beneath the joint is invaded by an inflammatory and vascular lymphoplasmacytic infiltrate. This lies adjacent to trabecular bone, where increased numbers of osteoclasts have been observed within resorption lacunae, suggesting a mechanistic link between inflammation and erosive bone damage. This could lead to erosion both of the overlying cortex, leading to classic radiographic rheumatoid erosions, and of local trabecular bone, possibly contributing to periarticular osteopenia and cyst formation. In addition to synovitis, osteitis is now regarded as a major rheumatoid lesion that is responsive to therapeutic intervention.