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Viscoelastic Heating of Intervertebral Disc

Collaborators: Robby Bowles, Ph.D., Addisu Mesfin, M.D.

Back pain is the leading cause of disability globally and the second most common cause of doctors’ visits. Despite extensive research efforts, the underlying mechanism of back pain has not been fully elucidated. The intervertebral disc (IVD) is a viscoelastic tissue that provides flexibility to the spinal column and acts as a shock absorber in the spine. When viscoelastic materials like IVD are cyclically loaded, they dissipate energy as heat. Thus, daily movements of the vertebral column intermittently deform the IVD and could increase disc temperature through viscoelastic heating. This temperature elevation has the potential to influence cell function, alter enzyme kinetics, drive cell death, and potentially induce nociception in innervating neurons within the IVD. Our work to date has focused on investigating the capacity of IVD to increase in temperature due to viscoelastic heating in vitro. According to our findings, the IVD can experience a measurable temperature rise (up to 2.5° C) under cyclic loading. This magnitude of temperature rise has physiological relevance as degenerative IVD tissue has been shown to produce a sensitization of nociceptive neurons that can spontaneously fire with a maximum response at just 1° C above normal body temperature. Thus, our results suggest that viscoelastic heating of IVD could interact with sensitized neurons in the degenerative IVD to play a role in back pain.

IVD heating image



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