Finite Element Modelling Of Anular Lesions in the Lumbar Intervertebral Disc

Little, Judith Paige (2004) Finite Element Modelling Of Anular Lesions in the Lumbar Intervertebral Disc. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


Low back pain is an ailment that affects a significant portion of the community. However, due to the complexity of the spine, which is a series of interconnected joints, and the loading conditions applied to these joints the causes for back pain are not well understood. Investigations of damage or failure of the spinal structures from a mechanical viewpoint may be viewed as a way of providing valuable information for the causes of back pain. Low back pain is commonly associated with injury to, or degeneration of, the intervertebral discs and involves the presence of tears or lesions in the anular disc material. The aim of the study presented in this thesis was to investigate the biomechanical effect of anular lesions on disc function using a finite element model of the L4/5 lumbar intervertebral disc.

The intervertebral disc consists of three main components - the anulus fibrosus, the nucleus pulposus and the cartilaginous endplates. The anulus fibrosus is comprised of collagen fibres embedded in a ground substance while the nucleus is a gelatinous material. The components of the intervertebral disc were represented in the model together with the longitudinal ligaments that are attached to the anterior and posterior surface of the disc. All other bony and ligamentous structures were simulated through the loading and boundary conditions.

A high level of both geometric and material accuracy was required to produce a physically realistic finite element model. The geometry of the model was derived from images of cadaveric human discs and published data on the in vivo configuration of the L4/5 disc. Material properties for the components were extracted from the existing literature. The anulus ground substance was represented as a Mooney-Rivlin hyperelastic material, the nucleus pulposus was modelled as a hydrostatic fluid in the healthy disc models and the cartilaginous endplates, collagen fibres and longitudinal ligaments were represented as linear elastic materials. A preliminary model was developed to assess the accuracy of the geometry and material properties of the disc components. It was found that the material parameters defined for the anulus ground substance did not accurately describe the nonlinear shear behaviour of the tissue. Accurate representation this nonlinear behaviour was thought to be important in ensuring the deformations observed in the anulus fibrosus of the finite element model were correct.

There was no information found in the literature on the mechanical properties of the anulus ground substance. Experimentation was, therefore, carried out on specimens of sheep anulus fibrosus in order to quantify the mechanical response of the ground substance. Two testing protocols were employed. The first series of tests were undertaken to provide information on the strain required to initiate permanent damage in the ground substance. The second series of tests resulted in the acquisition of data on the mechanical response of the tissue to repeated loading. The results of the experimentation carried out to determine the strain necessary to initiate permanent damage suggested that during daily loading some derangement might be caused in the anulus ground substance. The results for the mechanical response of the tissue were used to determine hyperelastic constants which were incorporated in the finite element model. A second order Polynomial and a third order Ogden strain energy equation were used to define the anulus ground substance. Both these strain energy equations incorporated the nonlinear mechanical response of the tissue during shear loading conditions.

Using these geometric data and material properties a finite element model of a representative L4/5 intervertebral disc was developed.

When the measured material parameters for the anulus ground substance were implemented in the finite element model, large deformations were observed in the anulus fibrosus and excessive nucleus pressures were found. This suggested that the material parameters defining the anulus ground substance were overly compliant and in turn, implied the possibility that the stiffness of the sheep anulus ground substance was lower than the stiffness of the human tissue. Even so, the mechanical properties of the sheep joints had been shown to be similar to those of the human joint and it was concluded that the results of analyses using these parameters would provide valuable qualitative information on the disc mechanics.

To represent the degeneration of the anulus fibrosus, the models included simulations of anular lesions - rim, radial and circumferential lesions. Degeneration of the nucleus may be characterised by a significant reduction in the hydrostatic nucleus pressure and a loss of hydration. This was simulated by removal of the hydrostatic nucleus pressure.

Analyses were carried out using rotational loading conditions that were comparable to the ranges of motion observed physiologically. The results of these analyses showed that the removal of the hydrostatic nucleus pressure from an otherwise healthy disc resulted in a significant reduction in the stiffness of the disc. This indicated that when the nucleus pulposus is extremely degenerate, it offers no resistance to the deformation of the anulus and the mechanics of the disc are significantly changed. Specifically, the resistance to rotation offered by the intervertebral disc is reduced, which may affect the stability of the joint. When anular lesions were simulated in the finite element model they caused minimal changes in the peak moments resisted by the disc under rotational loading. This suggested that the removal of the nucleus pressure had a greater effect on the mechanics of the disc than the simulation of anular lesions.

The results of the finite element model reproduced trends observed in both the healthy and degenerate intervertebral disc in terms of variations in nucleus pressure with loading conditions, axial displacement of the superior surface and bulge of the peripheral anulus. It was hypothesised that the reduced rotational stiffness of the degenerate disc may result in overload of the surrounding innervated osseoligamentous anatomy which may in turn cause back pain. Similarly back pain may result from the abnormal deformation of the innervated peripheral anulus in the vicinity of anular lesions. Furthermore, it was hypothesised that biochemical changes may result in the degeneration of the nucleus, which in turn may cause excessive strains in the anulus ground substance and lead to the initiation of permanent damage in the form of anular lesions. With further refinement of the components of the model and the methods used to define the anular lesions it was considered that this model would provide a powerful analysis tool for the investigation of the mechanics of intervertebral discs with and without significant degeneration.

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ID Code: 15952
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Pearcy, Mark, Adam, Clayton, Evans, John, Oloyede, Adekunle, & Pettet, Graeme
Keywords: Spine, Intervertebral Disc, Degeneration, Anular Lesions, Finite Element Analysis, Hyperelastic Material Model, Biomechanics
Department: Built Environment & Engineering
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Copyright Owner: Copyright Judith Paige Little
Deposited On: 03 Dec 2008 03:53
Last Modified: 28 Oct 2011 19:41

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