With the help of a computer program, scientists have been able to measure an important part of the knee in radiology images.
The program performs much faster and just as reliably as humans who interpret the same images.
Researchers have said that having more precise information about wear and tear on this portion of the knee - a blend of fibrous tissue and cartilage called the meniscus - could lead to its use as a biomarker in predicting who is at risk for developing osteoarthritis.
The meniscus consists of two C-shaped disks that rest between the thigh and shin bones.
It provides cushioning, evens out weight distribution and reduces friction.
Under normal circumstances, radiologists use rulers to measure specific portions of an image.
The new program replaces that method with automated measurements of several magnetic resonance imaging slices of the meniscus.
These measurements can then be used to determine the total volume of the structure of the meniscus for comparison over time.
After developing the program, the scientists found that the automated measurements were either as reliable or more reliable than human measurements of mild to moderate cases of knee degeneration.
Researchers have said that more work is needed to make the program equally strong in measuring severely damaged knees.
On a case-by-case basis, manual interpretation takes between seven and 20 minutes, and the computer program completes its segmentation in two to four minutes.
The scientists say the program could be revamped to make it work even more rapidly without sacrificing accuracy.
"Our ambitious goal is to change the way radiology is practiced. Right now, radiologists don't have the tools to make more than crude measurements of most images. So one thing we are doing is providing those tools," said Metin Gurcan, senior author of the work and an assistant professor of biomedical informatics at Ohio State University.
Researchers believe that if the meniscus - and, eventually, other parts of the knee - can be more precisely monitored for changes over time, the structures could serve as important predictors of people's risk for developing osteoarthritis, the leading cause of disability in older adults.
The research could be published in the journal Osteoarthritis and Cartilage.