Background and purpose — Few data are available regarding structural changes present in knees without radiographically evident osteoarthritis (OA). We evaluated the prevalence of findings suggestive of knee OA by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in middle-aged subjects without radiographic OA with or without OA risk factors. Patients and methods — 340 subjects from the Osteoarthritis Initiative, aged 45–55 years (51% women) with Kellgren–Lawrence grade 0 in both knees, who had 3T knee MR images were eligible. 294 subjects had risk factors and 46 were without risk factors. MR images were assessed using the MOAKS scoring system. Results — At least 1 MR-detected feature was found in 96% (283/294) of subjects with risk factors and in 87% (40/46) of those without. Cartilage damage (82%), bone marrow lesions (60%), osteophytes (45%), meniscal body extrusion (32%), and synovitis–effusion (29%) were the most common findings in subjects with risk factors, while cartilage damage (67%), osteophytes (46%), meniscal body extrusion (37%), and bone marrow lesions (35%) were most common in subjects without. The prevalence of any abnormality was higher in subjects with OA risk factors than in subjects without (prevalence ratio adjusted for age and sex 1.3 [95% CI 1.1–1.6]), so was prevalence of subchondral cysts and bone marrow lesions. MR-detected structural changes were more frequent in patellofemoral joints. Interpretation — Our findings highlight the great challenge in distinguishing pathological features of early knee OA from what could be considered part of “normal ageing.” Bone marrow lesions were more frequently found in subjects with multiple OA risk factors.
Subject classification (UKÄ)