Abstract

Soft tissues observed in clinical medical images are often prestrained in tension by internal pressure or tissue hydration. For a native disc, nucleus swelling occurs in equilibrium with osmotic pressure induced by the high concentration of proteoglycan in the nucleus. The objective of this computational study was to investigate the effects of nucleus swelling on disc geometry, fiber orientation, and mechanical behavior by comparing those of prestrained and zero-pressure (unswelled) discs. Thermoelastic analysis techniques were repurposed in order to determine the zero-pressure disc geometry which, when pressurized, matches the prestrained disc geometry observed in clinical images. The zero-pressure geometry was then used in simulations to approximately represent a degenerated disc, which loses the ability of nucleus swelling but has not undergone distinct soft tissue remodeling/deterioration. Our simulation results demonstrated that the loss of nucleus swelling caused a slight change in the disc geometry and fiber orientation, but a distinct deterioration in the resistance to intervertebral rotations (i.e., sagittal bending, lateral bending, and axial torsion). Different from rotational loading, in compression (with a displacement of 0.45 mm applied), a much larger stiffness (3.02 KN/mm) and a greater intradiscal pressure (0.61 MPa) were measured in the zero-pressure disc, compared to the prestrained disc (1.41 KN/mm and 0.52 MPa). This computational study could be useful to understand mechanisms of disc degeneration, and guide the future design of disc tissue engineering material.

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