Hans-Joachim Wilke, Friederike Rohlmann, Cornelia Neidlinger-Wilke, Karin Werner, Lutz Claes, Annette Kettler

November 2005, Volume 15, Issue 6, pp 720 - 730 Original Article Read Full Article 10.1007/s00586-005-1029-9

First Online: 18 November 2005

Many different radiographic grading systems for disc degeneration are described in literature. However, only a few of them are tested for interobserver agreement and none for validity. Furthermore, most of them are based on a subjective terminology. The aim of this study, therefore, is to combine these systems to a new one in which all subjective terms are replaced by more objective ones and to test this new system for validity and interobserver agreement. Since lumbar and cervical discs need to be graded differently, this study was divided into the present Part I for the lumbar and a Part II for the cervical spine. The new radiographic grading system covers the three variables “Height Loss”, “Osteophyte Formation” and “Diffuse Sclerosis”. On lateral and postero-anterior radiographs, each of these three variables first has to be graded individually. Then, the “Overall Degree of Degeneration” is assigned on a four-point scale from 0 (no degeneration) to 3 (severe degeneration). For validation, the radiographic degrees of degeneration of 44 lumbar discs were compared to the respective macroscopic ones, which were defined as “real” degrees of degeneration. The agreement between observers with different levels of experience was determined using the radiographs of 84 lumbar discs. Agreement was quantified using quadratic weighted Kappa coefficients (Kappa) with 95% confidence limits (95% CL). The validation of the new radiographic grading system revealed a substantial agreement between the radiographic and the “real” macroscopic overall degree of degeneration (Kappa=0.714, 95% CL: 0.587–0.841). The radiographic grades, however, tended to be slightly lower than the “real” ones. The interobserver agreement was substantial for all the three variables and for the overall degree of degeneration (Kappa=0.787, 95% CL: 0.702–0.872). However, the inexperienced observer tended to assign slightly lower degrees of degeneration than the experienced one. In conclusion, we believe that the new radiographic grading system is an almost objective, valid and reliable tool to quantify the degree of degeneration of individual lumbar intervertebral discs. However, the user should always remember that the “real” degree of degeneration tends to be underestimated and that slight differences between the ratings of observers with different levels of experience have to be expected.

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