A Microstructural Investigation of Disc Disruption Induced by Low Frequency Cyclic Loading

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Study Design.Microstructural investigation of low frequency cyclic loading and flexing of the lumbar disc.Objective.To explore micro-level structural damage in motion segments subjected to low frequency repetitive loading and flexing at sub-acute loads.Summary of Background Data.Cumulative exposure to mechanical load has been implicated in low back pain and injury. The mechanical pathways by which cyclic loading physically affects spine tissues remain unclear, in part due to the absence of high quality microstructural evidence.Methods.The study utilized seven intact ovine lumbar spines and from each spine one motion segment was used as a control, two others were cyclically loaded. Ten motion segments were subjected to 5000 cycles at 0.5 Hz with a peak load corresponding to ∼30% of that required to achieve failure. An additional small group of segments subjected to 10,000 or 30,000 cycles was similarly analyzed. Following chemical fixation and decalcification samples were cryosectioned along one of the oblique fiber angles and imaged in their fully hydrated state using differential interference contrast optical microscopy. Structural damage obtained from the images was organized into an algebraic shell for analysis.Results.At 5000 cycles the disc damage was limited to inner wall distortions, evidence of stress concentrations at bridging-lamellae attachments, and small delaminations. The high-cycle discs tested exhibited significant mid-wall damage. There was no evidence of nuclear material being displaced.Conclusion.At this low frequency and without the application of sustained loading or a more severe loading regime, or maintaining a constant flexion with repetitive loading, it seems unlikely that actual nuclear migration occurs. It is possible that the inner-annular damage shown in the low dose group could disrupt pathways for nutrient diffusion leading to earlier cell death and matrix degradation, thus contributing to a cascade of degeneration.Level of Evidence: N/A

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