Nucleotomy is a common surgical procedure and is also performed in ex vivo mechanical testing to model decreased nucleus pulposus (NP) pressurization that occurs with degeneration. Here, we implement novel and noninvasive methods using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study internal 3D annulus fibrosus (AF) deformations after partial nucleotomy and during axial compression by evaluating changes in internal AF deformation at reference loads (50 N) and physiological compressive loads (∼10% strain). One particular advantage of this methodology is that the full 3D disc deformation state, inclusive of both in-plane and out-of-plane deformations, can be quantified through the use of a high-resolution volumetric MR scan sequence and advanced image registration. Intact grade II L3-L4 cadaveric human discs before and after nucleotomy were subjected to identical mechanical testing and imaging protocols. Internal disc deformation fields were calculated by registering MR images captured in each loading state (reference and compressed) and each condition (intact and nucleotomy). Comparisons were drawn between the resulting three deformation states (intact at compressed load, nucleotomy at reference load, nucleotomy at compressed load) with regard to the magnitude of internal strain and direction of internal displacements. Under compressed load, internal AF axial strains averaged −18.5% when intact and −22.5% after nucleotomy. Deformation orientations were significantly altered by nucleotomy and load magnitude. For example, deformations of intact discs oriented in-plane, whereas deformations after nucleotomy oriented axially. For intact discs, in-plane components of displacements under compressive loads oriented radially outward and circumferentially. After nucleotomy, in-plane displacements were oriented radially inward under reference load and were not significantly different from the intact state at compressed loads. Re-establishment of outward displacements after nucleotomy indicates increased axial loading restores the characteristics of internal pressurization. Results may have implications for the recurrence of pain, design of novel therapeutics, or progression of disc degeneration.

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