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Lymph node staging.

  • Vogl, Thomas
  • Bisdas, Sotirios
  • Bisdas, Sortirios
Published Article
Topics in magnetic resonance imaging : TMRI
Publication Date
Aug 01, 2007
PMID: 17893595


Cancers of the head and neck (HNC) include cancers of the larynx, nasal passages/nose, oral cavity, pharynx, salivary glands, buccal regions, and thyroid. In these cancers, lymph node staging and localization of pathological lymph nodes are necessary to decide on either (neo) adjuvant or surgical therapy and are a major factor for the prognosis in HNC patients. Cervical node metastases have different incidence, and their presence is associated with a decrease in global survival to roughly half and with higher recurrence rates. The node metastases can be categorized in the following 2 groups: overt (clinical) or nonovert (occult). The latter can be subcategorized as metastases detectable by traditional methods (eg, staining) or "submicroscopic" metastases, only evident with immunohistochemical or molecular analysis. Compared with clinical invasive and laboratory examinations, which may have complications and are expensive, radiology plays an important role in lymph node staging. Mainly, the overt node metastases are the field of radiological imaging, and second, the detection of nonovert metastases is important and holds promise for the future because many patients of those initially classified as cN0 have, in fact, occult metastatic disease (pN1). Vice versa, radiological imaging has to avoid false-positive results that can lead to an elective or radical neck dissection, which are associated with increased morbidity and mortality and thus overshadow the improvement in survival. Radiological imaging plays a role not only as an initial staging of N+ but also in the case of N0 due to the continuing controversy for the treatment of N0 patients. A close observation of the patient may reveal a positive node in the follow-up. The imaging modalities used for the node staging in HNC patients include ultrasound, contrast-enhanced computed tomography, contrast-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography scans. None of the above-mentioned methods reaches a 100% sensitivity or specificity, and the accuracy of the exact number of metastases or levels involved has not been studied; thus, neck dissection with subsequent pathological examination remains the gold standard for node staging. Among the described cross-sectional imaging modalities, MRI presents a lot of advantages mainly due to the increased soft tissue contrast and the ability to obtain tissue characteristics in different sequences, including diffusion- and perfusion-weighted sequences and proton spectroscopy imaging. The lack of the radiation burden makes MRI suitable for a close follow-up of the patient, and the imaging with the use of new intravenous contrast material (such as ultrasmall iron oxide particles) seems superior to the conventional. In this article, we will focus on the lymph node MRI staging in HNC patients and the MR anatomy of the nodes, the necessary diagnostic workup, and the advantages of the method over computed tomography. The possibilities of the new imaging sequences and the treatment implications will be addressed as well.

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