Back pain plaques 85 percent of Americans and drains the U.S. economy to the tune of $100 billion a year. To surgically treat the most severe and chronic back pain, Brigham Young University engineers have announced the invention of an artificial spinal disc.
“Low back pain has been described as the most severe pain you can experience that won’t kill you,” says Anton Bowden, an engineering professor and one of three Brigham Young University researchers who conceived of the disc as a way to surgically treat chronic back pain.
As reported in the International Journal of Spine Surgery, the artificial spinal disc consists of a compliant mechanism that facilitates natural spine movement and restores the function of a healthy spinal disc.
Severe back pain occurs when the 23 Oreo-sized, cartilage-filled discs which hold the vertebrae of the humane spine together degenerate or herniate.
Currently, the most common surgical treatment for this condition is spinal fusion, where the degenerative disc is replaced with bone to join adjacent segments. Unfortunately, researchers report that patient satisfaction with spinal fusion is less than 50 percent.
“To mimic the response of the spine is very difficult because of the constrained space and the sophistication of the spine and its parts,” says BYU engineering professor Larry Howell, a leading expert in compliant mechanisms who, along with BYU alum Peter Halverson, worked with Bowden.
Compliant mechanisms are jointless, elastic structures that use flexibility to create movement. Examples are tweezers, nail clippers and the bow-and-arrow.
Bowden and Howell led BYU student engineers who built prototypes of the disc, and tested them on the spines of cadavers. Results showed that the artificial replacement disc behaves similarly to a healthy human disc.
“Putting it in a cadaver and having it do what we engineered it to do was really rewarding,” Howell said. “It has a lot of promise for eventually making a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”
The disc has been licensed by BYU to the Utah-based Crocker Spinal Technologies, which could begin international sales of the device as early as next year.
“BYU’s innovation is a radical step forward in the advancement of disc replacement technology,” says David Hawkes, head of the company. “This has the potential for making a significant difference in the lives of millions.”