We reviewed magnetic resonance imaging studies of the thoracic spines of ninety asymptomatic individuals to determine the prevalence of abnormal anatomical findings. This group included sixty individuals who had no history of any thoracic or lumbar pain and thirty individuals who had a history of low-back pain only. In addition, we reviewed imaging studies of eighteen patients who had an operatively proved herniation of a thoracic disc and studies of thirty-one patients who had been seen with thoracic pain. Sagittal T1-weighted spin-echo and axial multiplanar gradient refocused images at each disc level were interpreted by us (two neuroradiologists and two orthopaedic spine surgeons); we had no clinical information about the patients. Sixty-six (73 percent) of the ninety asymptomatic individuals had positive anatomical findings at one level or more. These findings included herniation of a disc in thirty-three subjects (37 percent), bulging of a disc in forty-eight (53 percent), an annular tear in fifty-two (58 percent), deformation of the spinal cord in twenty-six (29 percent), and Scheuermann end-plate irregularities or kyphosis in thirty-four (38 percent). This study documents the high prevalence of anatomical irregularities, including herniation of a disc and deformation of the spinal cord, on the magnetic resonance images of the thoracic spine in asymptomatic individuals. We emphasize that these findings represent roentgenographic abnormalities only, and any clinical decisions concerning the treatment of pain in the thoracic spine usually require additional studies.
Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis 55407, USA.