Altered helical axis patterns of the lumbar spine indicate increased instability with disc degeneration

Arin M. Ellingson, David J. Nuckley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Although the causes of low back pain are poorly defined and indistinct, degeneration of the intervertebral disc is most often implicated as the origin of pain. The biochemical and mechanical changes associated with degeneration result in the discs' inability to maintain structure and function, leading to spinal instability and ultimately pain. Traditionally, a clinical exam assessing functional range-of-motion coupled with T2-weighted MRI revealing disc morphology are used to evaluate spinal health; however, these subjective measures fail to correlate well with pain or provide useful patient stratification. Therefore, improved quantification of spinal motion and objective MRI measures of disc health are necessary. An instantaneous helical axis (IHA) approach provides rich temporal three-dimensional data describing the pathway of motion, which is easily visualized. Eighteen cadaveric osteoligamentous lumbar spines (L4-5) from throughout the degenerative spectrum were tested in a pure moment fashion. IHA were calculated for flexion-extension and lateral bending. A correlational study design was used to determine the relationship between disc measurements from quantitative T2* MRI and IHA metrics. Increased instability and out-of-plane rotation with diminished disc health was observed during lateral bending, but not flexion-extension. This new analysis strategy examines the entire pathway of motion, rather than simplifying spinal kinematics to its terminal ends of motion and provides a more sensitive kinematic measurement of disc health. Ultimately, through the use of 3D dynamic fluoroscopy or similar methods, a patient's functional IHA in lateral bending may be measured and used to assess their disc health for diagnosis, progression tracking, and treatment evaluation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)361-369
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Biomechanics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 21 2015


  • Disc degeneration
  • Helical axes
  • Kinematics
  • Magnetic resonance imaging
  • T2* (T2 star)

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