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Extended report
Do knee abnormalities visualised on MRI explain knee pain in knee osteoarthritis? A systematic review
  1. Erlangga Yusuf1,
  2. Marion C Kortekaas1,
  3. Iain Watt2,
  4. Tom W J Huizinga1,
  5. Margreet Kloppenburg1
  1. 1Department of Rheumatology, Leiden University Medical Center, Leiden, The Netherlands
  2. 2Department of Radiology, Leiden University Medical Center, Leiden, The Netherlands
  1. Correspondence to Erlangga Yusuf, Department of Rheumatology, Leiden University Medical Center, C1-46, Postbus 9600, 2300 RC Leiden, The Netherlands; e.yusuf{at}


Objective To systematically evaluate the association between MRI findings (cartilage defects, bone marrow lesions (BML), osteophytes, meniscal lesion, effusion/synovitis, ligamentous abnormalities, subchondral cysts and bone attrition) and pain in patients with knee osteoarthritis (OA) in order to establish the relevance of such findings when assessing an individual patient.

Methods The Medline, Web of Science, Embase and Cumulative Index to Nursing & Allied Health Literature (CINAHL) databases up to March 2010 were searched without language restriction to find publications with data on the association between MRI findings of knee OA (exposure of interest) and knee pain (outcome). The quality of included papers was scored using a predefined criteria set. The levels of evidence were determined qualitatively using best evidence synthesis (based on guidelines on systematic review from the Cochrane Collaboration Back Review Group). Five levels of evidence were used: strong, moderate, limited, conflicting and no evidence.

Results A total of 22 papers were included; 5 had longitudinal and 17 cross-sectional data. In all, 13 reported a single MRI finding and 9 multiple MRI findings. Moderate levels of evidence were found for BML and effusion/synovitis. The OR for BML ranged from 2.0 (no CI was given) to 5.0 (2.4 to 10.5). The OR of having pain when effusion/synovitis was present ranged between 3.2 (1.04 to 5.3) and 10.0 (1.1 to 149). The level of evidences between other MRI findings and pain were limited or conflicting.

Conclusions Knee pain in OA is associated with BML and effusion/synovitis suggesting that these features may indicate the origin of pain in knee OA. However, due to the moderate level of evidence these features need to be explored further.

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  • EY and MCK contributed equally to this work.

  • Competing interests All authors have completed the Unified Competing Interest form at (available on request from the corresponding author).

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.