In this study we analysed the accuracy of computed tomography (CT) measurements in assessing conical bone. We determined the dependency of thickness and density measurements on the true width and density of the cortex and on the spatial resolution in the CT images using two optimized segmentation methods. As a secondary goal, we assessed the ability of CT to reflect small changes in cortical thickness.
Two different bone-mimicking phantoms with varying conical thickness were scanned with single-slice CT on a Somatom Plus 4 scanner. Images were reconstructed with both a standard and a high-resolution convolution kernel. Two special operator-independent segmentation methods were used to automatically detect the edges of the conical shell. We measured cortical thickness and density and compared the phantom measurements with theoretical computations by simulating a cross-sectional shape of the cortical shell. Based on the simulations, we calculated CT's power to detect small changes in cortical thickness.
Simulations and phantom measurements were in very good agreement. Cortical thickness could be measured with an error of less than 10% if the true thickness was larger than 0.9 (0.7) mm for the standard (high-resolution) kernel which is close to the full width at half maximum (FWHM) of the point spread functions for these kernels and our scanner. Density measurements yielded errors of less than 10% for true cortical thickness values above two to three times the FWHM corresponding to 2.5 (2) mm in our case. The simulations showed that a 10% change in cortical width would not be detected with satisfying probability in bones with a cortical shell thinner than 1.2 mm.
An accurate determination of the conical thickness is limited to bones with a thickness higher than the FWHM of the scanner's point spread function. Therefore, the use of a high-resolution reconstruction kernel is crucial. Cortical bone mineral density can only be measured accurately in bones two to three times thicker than this number. In thinner bones, the measured density becomes dependent on the thickness. Changes in cortical thickness can only be assessed if the change is rather large or if the measured bone has sufficient thickness. Therefore, assessing density or thickness of the vertebral shell by CT should be treated with caution.