Using a continuum approach for modeling the constitutive mechanical behavior of the intervertebral disk’s annulus fibrosus holds the potential for facilitating the correlation of morphology and biomechanics of this clinically important tissue. Implementation of a continuum representation of the disk’s tissues into computational models would yield a particularly valuable tool for investigating the effects of degenerative disease. However, to date, relevant efforts in the literature towards this goal have been limited due to the lack of a computationally tractable and implementable constitutive function. In order to address this, annular specimens harvested from a total of 15 healthy and degenerated intervertebral disks were tested under planar biaxial tension. Predictions of a strain energy function, which was previously shown to be unconditionally convex, were fit to the experimental data, and the optimized coefficients were used to modify a previously validated finite element model of the L4/L5 functional spinal unit. Optimization of material coefficients based on experimental results indicated increases in the micro-level orientation dispersion of the collagen fibers and the mechanical nonlinearity of these fibers due to degeneration. On the other hand, the finite element model predicted a progressive increase in the stress generation in annulus fibrosus due to stepwise degeneration of initially the nucleus and then the entire disk. Range of motion was predicted to initially increase with the degeneration of the nucleus and then decrease with the degeneration of the annulus in all rotational loading directions, except for axial rotation. Overall, degeneration was observed to specifically impact the functional effectiveness of the collagen fiber network of the annulus, leading to changes in the biomechanical behavior at both the tissue level and the motion-segment level.

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