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Relative Nucleus Pulposus Area and Position Alters Disc Joint Mechanics

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Aging and degeneration of the intervertebral disk are noted by changes in tissue composition and geometry, including a decrease in nucleus pulposus (NP) area. The NP centroid is positioned slightly posterior of the disk's centroid, but the effect of NP size and location on disk joint mechanics is not well understood. We evaluated the effect of NP size and centroid location on disk joint mechanics under dual-loading modalities (i.e., compression in combination with axial rotation or bending). A finite element model (FEM) was developed to vary the relative NP area (NP:Disk area ratio range = 0.21-0.60). We also evaluated the effect of NP position by shifting the NP centroid anteriorly and posteriorly. Our results showed that compressive stiffness and average first principal strains increased with NP size. Under axial compression, stresses are distributed from the NP to the annulus, and stresses were redistributed toward the NP with axial rotation. Moreover, peak stresses were greater for disks with a smaller NP area. NP centroid location had a greater impact on intradiscal pressure during flexion and extension, where peak pressures in the posterior annulus under extension was greater for disks with a more posteriorly situated NP. In conclusion, the findings from this study highlight the importance of closely mimicking NP size and location in computational models that aim to understand stress/strain distribution during complex loading and for developing repair strategies that aim to recapitulate the mechanical behavior of healthy disks.

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