Clinical importance of inflammatory facet joints of the spine in ankylosing spondylitis: a magnetic resonance imaging study

Objectives: The aims of this study were to assess the reliability of a novel magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scoring system for inflammatory lesions of facet joints and to clarify the clinical significance of facet joint inflammation in ankylosing spondylitis (AS).

Method: A total of 53 AS patients (45 males, 84.9%) were assessed for active inflammatory lesions involving the facet joints, as indicated by bone marrow oedema, at 23 discovertebral units (DVUs) between C2 and S1 using a novel scale, the AS Activity of the Facet joint (ASAFacet). The reliability of the ASAFacet was evaluated using intraclass correlation coefficients (ICCs) and Bland–Altman plots.

Results: ICC values for the ASAFacet scores were 0.857 [95% confidence interval (CI) 0.741–0.919] for inter-observer and 0.941 (95% CI 0.873–0.969) for intra-observer reliability. Inflammatory activity scores in facet joints were evenly distributed at all spine levels (p = 0.294 for ASAFacet), whereas vertebral body inflammation was more prominent in the thoracic spine than in the cervical and lumbar spine [p < 0.001 for the AS spine MRI activity (ASspiMRI-a) score, p = 0.002 for the Berlin method, and p < 0.001 for the Spondyloarthritis Research Consortium of Canada (SPARCC) MRI index]. ASAFacet scores were closely associated with erythrocyte sediment rate (ESR) and C-reactive protein (CRP) levels (p < 0.05, respectively). Patients with peripheral arthritis had fewer lesions involving the vertebral bodies or facet joints than patients without peripheral arthritis (p < 0.001 for the four different MRI activity indexes).

Conclusions: This study suggests that recognition of facet joint inflammation has the potential to contribute to our understanding of clinical outcomes in AS.