Do findings identified on magnetic resonance imaging predict future neck pain? A systematic review

Laura Hill, David Aboud, James Elliott, John Magnussen, Michele Sterling, Daniel Steffens, Mark J. Hancock*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Background Context: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has the potential to identify pathology contributing to neck pain. However, the importance of findings on MRI remains unclear. Purpose: We aimed to investigate whether findings on cervical spine MRI predict future neck pain. Study Design: A systematic review was carried out. Patient Sample: People with or without neck pain comprised the study sample. Outcome Measures: Clinically important neck pain outcomes such as pain and disability. Methods: The review protocol was registered on PROSPERO [CRD42016049228]. MEDLINE, CINAHL, and EMBASE databases were searched. Prospective cohort studies investigating the association between baseline MRI findings and clinical outcome were included. Cohorts with serious underlying diseases as the cause of their neck pain were excluded. Associations between MRI findings and neck pain outcomes were extracted from the included studies. Results: A total of 12 studies met all inclusion criteria. Eight studies presented data on participants with current neck pain, two studies included a mixed sample, and two studies included a sample of participants with no current neck pain. Because of the heterogeneity between the studies in terms of MRI findings, populations, and clinical outcomes investigated, it was not possible to pool the results. No consistent associations between MRI findings and future outcomes were identified. Single studies of populations with neck pain reported significant associations for neck muscle fatty infiltrate (risk ratio [RR]: 21.00, 95% confidence interval [CI]: 2.97-148.31) with persistent neck disability; disc protrusion (mean difference ranged from -1.83 to -2.88 on a 10-point pain scale), and disc degeneration (RR: 0.59; 95% CI: 0.36-0.98) with neck pain. In a population without pain, the development of foraminal stenosis over a 10-year period was associated with development of neck pain (RR: 2.99; 95% CI: 1.23-7.23). Conclusion: The limited number, heterogeneity, and small sample size of the included studies do not permit definitive conclusions on the association between MRI findings of the cervical spine with future neck pain.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)880-891
Number of pages12
JournalSpine Journal
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2018


  • Diagnosis
  • Imaging
  • Magnetic resonance imaging
  • Neck pain
  • Prognosis
  • Systematic review


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