Recent biomechanics studies have revealed distinct kinematic behavior of different lumbar segments. The mechanisms behind these segment-specific biomechanical features are unknown. This study investigated the in vivo geometric characteristics of human lumbar intervertebral discs.
Magnetic resonance images of the lumbar spine of 41 young Chinese individuals were acquired. Disc geometry in the sagittal plane was measured for each subject, including the dimensions of the discs, nucleus pulposus (NP), and annulus fibrosus (AF). Segmental lordosis was also measured using the Cobb method.
In general, the disc length increased from upper to lower lumbar levels, except that the L4/5 and L5/S1 discs had similar lengths. The L4/5 NP had a height of 8.6 ± 1.3 mm, which was significantly higher than all other levels (P < 0.05). The L5/S1 NP had a length of 21.6 ± 3.1 mm, which was significantly longer than all other levels (P < 0.05). At L4/5, the NP occupied 64.0% of the disc length, which was significantly less than the NP of the L5/S1 segment (72.4%) (P < 0.05). The anterior AF occupied 20.5% of the L4/5 disc length, which was significantly greater than that of the posterior AF (15.6%) (P < 0.05). At the L5/S1 segment, the anterior and posterior AFs were similar in length (14.1% and 13.6% of the disc, respectively). The height to length (H/L) ratio of the L4/5 NP was 0.45 ± 0.06, which was significantly greater than all other segments (P < 0.05). There was no correlation between the NP H/L ratio and lordosis.
Although the lengths of the lower lumbar discs were similar, the geometry of the AF and NP showed segment-dependent properties. These data may provide insight into the understanding of segment-specific biomechanics in the lower lumbar spine. The data could also provide baseline knowledge for the development of segment-specific surgical treatments of lumbar diseases.