International Orthopaedics

, Volume 43, Issue 4, pp 861–867 | Cite as

The relevance of high-intensity zones in degenerative disc disease

  • Jason Pui Yin CheungEmail author
  • Keith Dip Kei Luk



The purpose of this study was to review the current understanding of high-intensity zones (HIZ) in the lumbar spine with particular attention to its imaging phenotype and clinical relevance.


A review was conducted of studies related to HIZ. Particular attention was made to imaging phenotypes and classification, and its relationship with discogenic low back pain (LBP).


The most current classification system of HIZ is based on location (anterior and posterior), morphology (round, fissure, vertical, rim, or giant types), and its appearance on both T1- and T2-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). HIZ are commonly manifested with disc degeneration. Hence, both conditions share similar risk factors such as the effect of frequent and prolonged disc loading. The clinical significance of HIZ however is not conclusive. Provocative discography is not sensitive (~ 70%) for eliciting a concordant pain response. Population-based studies have conflicting results regarding the prevalence (14–63%) of HIZ and its correlation with LBP.


HIZ are likely a risk factor for discogenic LBP. However, its etiology and pathophysiology are not well understood. Some clinical studies suggest a link between its occurrence and LBP. However, the results are not consistent as a result of studies which are underpowered and based on heterogeneous study populations, lacking control groups, and without standardized imaging phenotypes. HIZ may be an important pain biomarker that should be further studied. With more modern MRI technology and a detailed classification system, future large-scale population studies will improve our knowledge on its role in the disc degeneration cascade and development of LBP.


High-intensity zones HIZ Lumbar spine Back pain Phenotype Disc degeneration MRI 


Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© SICOT aisbl 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Orthopaedics and TraumatologyThe University of Hong Kong, Queen Mary HospitalHong Kong SARChina

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