Thirty-four percent of U.S. Navy high speed craft (HSC) personnel suffer from lower back injury and low back pain, compared with 15 to 20% of the general population. Many of these injuries are specifically related to the intervertebral disc, including discogenic pain and accelerated disc degeneration. Numerous studies have characterized the mechanical behavior of the disc under normal physiological loads, while several have also analyzed dynamic loading conditions. However, the effect of impact loads on the lumbar disc—and their contribution to the high incidence of low back pain among HSC personnel—is still not well understood. An ex vivo study on human lumbar anterior column units was performed in order to investigate disc biomechanical response to impact loading conditions. Samples were subjected to a sequence of impact events of varying duration (Δt = 80, 160, 320, 400, 600, 800, and 1000 ms) and the level of displacement (0.2, 0.5, and 0.8 mm), stiffness k, and energy dissipation ΔE were measured. Impacts of Δt = 80 ms saw an 18–21% rise in k and a 3–7% drop in ΔE compared to the 1000 ms baseline, signaling an abrupt change in disc mechanics. The altered disc mechanical response during impact likely causes more load to be transferred directly to the endplates, vertebral bodies, and surrounding soft tissues and can help begin to explain the high incidence of low back pain among HSC operators and other individuals who typically experience similar loading environments. The determination of a “safety range” for impacts could result in a refinement of design criteria for shock mitigating systems on high-speed craft, thus addressing the low back injury problem among HSC personnel.

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