Documenting damage progression in a two-year longitudinal study of rheumatoid arthritis patients with established disease (the DAMAGE study cohort): Is there an advantage in the use of magnetic resonance imaging as compared with plain radiography?




In early rheumatoid arthritis (RA), longitudinal studies have demonstrated that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is more sensitive than radiography in demonstrating progressive erosive joint damage. The present study evaluated the progression of erosive damage in patients with established RA by using limited field of view MRI and comparing the results with those obtained by radiography.


MRI and radiographic studies were available from 47 of 60 patients enrolled in a 2-year RA observational study. MRI of the metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joints was performed at baseline and 2 years later, and a single observer scored all of the MR images with the use of an MRI scoring method developed by the Outcome Measures in Rheumatology Clinical Trials MRI RA study group. MR images from 14 patients were reread by the same observer after 1 week to assess intraobserver reliability. Radiographs were obtained at baseline and at 2 years, and were scored by an observer using the Scott modification of the Larsen score. Radiographs from 14 patients were reread after 1 week to assess the intraobserver reliability. The smallest detectable difference (SDD) was calculated for the MRI scores, the total Larsen scores, and the Larsen scores of the dominant-hand MCP joints (MCPs 2–5) for direct comparison with the MRI results.


The median disease duration was 5.1 years (range 0.5–29 years). Evidence of erosion progression was identified by MRI in 30 patients (64%). The SDD based on the intraobserver scores was calculated as ±3.25 units. Using this result, 11 patients (23%) showed evidence of erosion progression on MRI that was greater than the SDD. The SDD for progression based on the intraobserver total Larsen radiographic scores was 0.77 units, and the SDD for the Larsen scores of the dominant-hand MCP joints was 1.55 units. On the basis of these results, radiographic progression was noted in 19 patients (40%) by the total Larsen score and 7 patients (15%) by the dominant-hand MCP Larsen score. The most striking finding was that although MRI and radiograph scores identified a similar group of patients as having progression of joint damage, the radiographs of both hands appeared to be more responsive to change, albeit with the caveat that radiographic progression was most marked outside the dominant-hand MCP joints.


There was no clear advantage of MRI with a limited field of view as compared with radiographic imaging of both hands in detecting progression of joint damage over 2 years in this group of patients with established RA. The conclusion drawn from this study is not that radiographs are better than MRI or vice versa, but that careful analysis is required to determine the optimal imaging method, or combination of imaging methods, for each study population, depending on the objective and duration of the study.