One of the major problems facing the elderly spine is the occurrence of vertebral fractures due to low bone mass. Although typically attributed to osteoporosis, disc degeneration has also been suggested to play a role in vertebral fractures. Existing bone adaptation theories and simulations may explain the biomechanical pathway from a degenerated disc to an increased fracture risk.
A finite element model of a lumbar segment was created and calibrated. Subsequently the disc properties were varied to represent either a healthy or degenerated disc and the resulting bone adaptation was simulated.
Disc degeneration resulted in a shift of load from the nucleus to the annulus. The resulting bone adaptation led to a dramatically reduced density of the trabecular core and to an increased density in the vertebral walls. Degeneration of just the nucleus, and in particular the dehydration of the nucleus, resulted in most of this bone density change. Additional annulus degeneration had much less of an effect on the density values.
The density decrease in the trabecular core as seen in this study matches clinical observations. Therefore, bone remodeling theories can assists in explaining the potential synergistic effects of disc degeneration and osteoporotis in the occurrence of vertebral fractures.