Are magnetic resonance imaging technologies crucial to our understanding of spinal conditions?

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U SYNOPSIS: Persistent spinal (traumatic and nontraumatic) pain is common and contributes to high societal and personal costs globally. There is an acknowledged urgency for new and interdisciplinary approaches to the condition, and soft tissues, including skeletal muscles, the spinal cord, and the brain, are rightly receiving increased attention as important biological contributors. In reaction to the recent suspicion and questioned value of imaging-based findings, this paper serves to recognize the promise that the technological evolution of imaging techniques, and particularly magnetic resonance imaging, is allowing in characterizing previously less visible morphology. We emphasize the value of quantification and data analysis of several contributors in the biopsychosocial model for understanding spinal pain. Further, we highlight emerging evidence regarding the pathobiology of changes to muscle composition (eg, atrophy, fatty infiltration), as well as advancements in neuroim-aging and musculoskeletal imaging techniques (eg, fat-water imaging, functional magnetic resonance imaging, diffusion imaging, magnetization transfer imaging) for these important soft tissues. These noninvasive and objective data sources may complement known prognostic factors of poor recovery, patient self-report, diagnostic tests, and the “-omics” fields. When combined, advanced “big-data” analyses may assist in identifying associations previously not considered. Our clinical commentary is supported by empirical findings that may orient future efforts toward collaborative conversation, hypothesis generation, interdisciplinary research, and translation across a number of health fields. Our emphasis is that magnetic resonance imaging technologies and research are crucial to the advancement of our understanding of the complexities of spinal conditions.

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