Artificial Disc Could Save Athletes With Spine Injury

Engineers at Brigham Young University have devised a new artificial disc that mimics the movement of the human spine. For many athletes, this could be a career and life-quality preserving option.

Chronic lower back pain is a major health problem that affects 85% of Americans, and costs the U.S. economy around $100 billion every year. The pain often comes from one of the 23 discs that are critical for movement and are located between the vertebrae of the human spine. Over time, or due to excessive stress or injury, those discs begin to degenerate or even herniate. These are the common sources for chronic lower back pain.

Advances have been made over the years, but back pain still continues to shorten many athletes’ careers. Engineering professors Anton Bowden and Larry Howell, and Brigham Young University (BYU) alum Peter Halverson, however, have designed a new biomedical device to surgically treat back pain.1

The artificial disc the professors conceived duplicates the natural motion of the spine. It has been licensed from Brigham Young University to Crocker Spinal Technologies, a Utah-based company that has ties to BYU. The report of this new spinal mechanism’s ability to enable natural spine movement will be published in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Spinal Surgery.2

This new conception could be promising considering the most common surgical treatment for chronic lower back pain is spinal fusion surgery. Fusion surgery replaces the degenerative disc with bone in order to fuse the adjacent segments, which is supposed to prevent pain that is triggered by movement. However, patient satisfaction with fusion surgery is less than 50%. The new surgical conception researched by the BYU team involves a compliant mechanism that enables natural spine movement and focuses on restoring the function of a healthy disc. Compliant mechanisms are joint-less and made up of elastic structures that use flexibility to create movement. Examples of compliant mechanisms could be tweezers, fingernail clippers, or a bow and arrow.3

“To mimic the response of the spine is very difficult because of the constrained space and the sophistication of the spine and its parts,” Howell said. “A compliant mechanism is more human-like, more natural, and the one we’ve created behaves like a healthy disc.”4

Howell and Bowden supervised the construction of prototypes by BYU student engineers as well as the machine tests performed on the discs. Those discs were then tested in cadaveric spines. The results of the test showed that the artificial replacement disc in fact behaves similar to that of a healthy human disc.5

“Disc replacement is an emerging alternative to fusion that has the potential to make a significant difference in the lives of millions,” said President of Crocker Spinal Technologies and BYU alum David Hawkes.6

We all know spine health is crucial to performance since the spine is an integral part of mobility, and spine injuries are common in many sports. Considering that current surgical options are limited, and often unsuccessful, this new device could be very good news to athletes.7

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