Retrospective Review of Radiographic Imaging of Tibial Bony Stress Injuries in Adolescent Athletes With Positive MRI Findings: A Comparative Study

Eric D. Nussbaum, Catherine King, Robert Epstein, Jaynie Bjornaraa, Patrick S. Buckley, Charles J. Gatt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Background: It is difficult to diagnose and grade bony stress injury (BSI) in the athletic adolescent population without advanced imaging. Radiographs are recommended as a first imaging modality, but have limited sensitivity and, even when findings are present, advanced imaging is often recommended. Hypothesis: It was hypothesized that the significance of radiographs is underestimated for BSI in the adolescent with positive clinical examination and history findings. Study design: Case series Level of evidence: Level 4 Methods: A total of 80 adolescent athletes with a history of shin pain underwent clinical examination by an orthopaedic surgeon. On the day of clinical examination, full-length bilateral tibial radiographs and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans were obtained. MRI scans were reviewed using Fredericson grading for BSI. At the completion of the study, radiographic images were re-evaluated by 2 musculoskeletal (MSK) radiologists, blinded to MRI and clinical examination results, who reviewed the radiographs for evidence of BSI. Radiographic results were compared with clinical examination and MRI findings. Sensitivity, specificity, negative predictive value, and positive predictive value were calculated based on comparison with MRI. Results: All radiographs were originally read as normal. Of the tibia studied, 80% (127 of 160) showed evidence of BSI on MRI. None of the original radiographs demonstrated a fracture line on initial review by the orthopaedic surgeons. Retrospective review by 2 MSK radiologists identified 27% of radiographs (34 of 127) with evidence of abnormality, which correlated with clinical examination and significant findings on MRI. Review of radiographs found evidence of new bone on 0 of 28 Fredericson grade 0, 0 of 19 Fredericson grade I, 11 of 80 (13.7%) Fredericson grade II, 18 of 28 (64%) Fredericson grade III, and 5 of 5 (100%) Fredericson grade IV. Sensitivity of radiographs showed evidence of new bone on 27% (34 of 127) of initial radiographs, with presence more common with greater degree of BSI, as 23 of 33 (70%) were higher-grade injuries (III of IV) of BSI. Specificity and positive predictive value were 100%, while negative predictive value was 17%. Conclusion: These findings highlight the importance of initial radiographs in identifying high-grade BSI. As radiographs are readily available in most office settings of sports medicine physicians, this information can influence the management of adolescent athletic BSI without the need to delay treatment to obtain an MRI. Clinical Relevance: Adolescent athletes with radiographic evidence of BSI should be treated in a timely and more conservative manner, given the likelihood of higher-grade BSI. In addition, clinicians knowledgeable of the radiographic findings of high-grade BSI should feel more confident that a negative initial radiograph is not likely to be a high-grade BSI and can modify their treatment plans accordingly.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)244-249
Number of pages6
JournalSports Health
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine
  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation


  • MRI
  • adolescent athlete
  • bony stress injury
  • new bone
  • radiograph
  • radiography


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