Researchers at Brigham Young University have engineered a spinal disc replacement in hopes of relieving sufferers of chronic low back pain. The biomedical device replicates the natural motion of the spine. A study will be published in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Spine Surgery.
The vertebrae of our spines have natural shock absorbers in between each of them which are usually referred to as discs. These discs serve to hold the vertebrae in place while allowing for some movement. The discs also contain a jelly like substance which absorbs impact. Great pain can arise if one of these discs becomes worn or damaged. It can create a bone on bone friction between the vertebrae and produce unimaginable pain. If you looked around, it probably wouldn’t take you very long to find someone who has suffered chronic low back pain. According to a BYU news release, chronic low back pain is suffered by “85% of Americans and drains the U.S. economy to the tune of $100 billion every year.” Most of those who do suffer with it are referred to a surgeon to get spinal fusion surgery. The surgery basically fuses two vertebrae together using a piece of bone. Sadly, this surgery only alleviates pain in about 50% of the cases.
Enter the heroes in this story, engineering professors Anton Bowden and Larry Howell and BYU alum Peter Halverson. They designed a device, known as a “compliant mechanism”, to act as a full spinal disc replacement. A compliant mechanism is a jointless and flexible mechanism that allows for movement. A couple of examples would be a pair of tweezers or a bow and arrow. “To mimic the response of the spine is very difficult because of the constrained space and the sophistication of the spine and its parts,” Howell said. “A compliant mechanism is more human-like, more natural, and the one we’ve created behaves like a healthy disc.” Under Bowden and Howell’s direction, BYU students were allowed to build prototypes and implant them in cadavers. The device has now been licensed to Utah based Crocker Spinal Technologies.
I personally have many family members and friends who suffer from chronic back pain. I have seen them go through surgery after painful surgery only to find themselves in no better shape. Even worse, they are often at the mercy of highly addictive pain medicines which impair them in other ways and only add to the problems they already face. It is my sincere hope for many in their same position that this technology will become a readily available and effective treatment.