JOURNAL ARTICLE
REVIEW

Magnetic resonance imaging of the peripheral nervous system

R C Fritz, R D Boutin, R A Boutin
Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America 2001, 12 (2): 399-432
11345015
An accurate diagnosis is the essential first step toward a successful treatment plan in patients who present with pain and suspected nerve entrapment. Pain and dysfunction are often related to an acute traumatic event or a classic presentation that leads to a straightforward clinical diagnosis. The diagnostic approach to abnormalities of the peripheral nervous system always begins with a thorough history and physical examination. Imaging may play an important role in confirming the initial clinical [figure: see text] diagnosis so that a rational plan of treatment may be selected. Diagnostic imaging is especially important when there is significant uncertainty regarding the cause of pain and the outcome may be improved by timely implementation of various treatment options. Diagnostic accuracy is important when various conditions in the differential diagnosis would be treated differently from the beginning. Indeed, certain conditions that result in pain and dysfunction related to peripheral nerve entrapment are best treated with initial rest, protection, and rehabilitation whereas other conditions are best treated with prompt surgery. Promptly arriving at an accurate diagnosis is an essential step in designing a rational course of therapy, in achieving a good outcome, and in treating medical conditions in a timely fashion. Indeed, because pain is mediated through peripheral nerves, establishing an accurate diagnosis is especially important in disorders of the peripheral nervous system in which there may be considerable pain and suffering with an incorrect or delayed diagnosis. Moreover, an early diagnosis is desirable [figure: see text] to preserve motor power and sensory function in cases of clinically occult nerve entrapment. Although entrapment syndromes are well described and widely documented in the literature, they may be easily missed in clinical practice in certain instances. Although MR imaging is useful to confirm and characterize a known or suspected case of peripheral nerve entrapment, there may be evidence of peripheral nerve pathology that is first detected with MR imaging. Clinically unsuspected nerve entrapment may occur in patients with occult dorsal ganglion cysts in the wrist that may entrap the posterior interosseous nerve and produce pain without other symptoms. In addition, the authors routinely see patients with paralabral cysts secondary to tears of the superior labrum in the shoulder resulting in entrapment of the suprascapular nerve. This diagnosis is usually not suspected clinically until there is relatively advanced weakness and muscular atrophy in addition to shoulder pain. MR imaging remains an evolving technique with ongoing improvements in technology and developing clinical experience, resulting in greater diagnostic capacity. In this article current technique and strategies for image analysis and the authors' specific clinical experience with MR imaging of peripheral nerve disorders are reviewed. The exact role of MR imaging in the evaluation of these disorders will be further defined with additional experimental work and published clinical experience.

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