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Artificial spinal disc designed to treat chronic lower back pain


June 13, 2012

A prototype of the BYU artificial spine disc replacement

A prototype of the BYU artificial spine disc replacement

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The soft, collagen-rich shock absorbers in our backs, known as intervertebral discs, both add to our height (a full quarter of the spinal column's total length) and cushion our vertebrae from contacting one another. Unfortunately, aging, accidents and overuse can damage them and lead to the costly phenomenon of chronic back pain – roughly US$100 billion is spent annually on treatment in the U.S. alone. Replacement of damaged discs, rather than spinal fusion, is an option that's growing in popularity, especially because it helps maintain mobility in the spine. Now, a team from Brigham Young University (BYU) has unveiled their new artificial disc, a compliant mechanism that they believe has the potential to restore quality of life to millions of those with injured spines.

Designed by BYU engineering professors Anton Bowden, Larry Howell and former BYU student Peter Halverson, the jointless elastic device is flexible enough to allow movement, but durable enough to withstand the sometimes crushing pressures that build up between the vertebra of the spine. The team's study will be published in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Spine Surgery.

“Low back pain has been described as the most severe pain you can experience that won’t kill you,” Bowden said. “This device has the potential to alleviate that pain and restore the natural motion of the spine – something current procedures can’t replicate.” Spinal fusion, currently the most common procedure in addressing damaged discs, leaves more than half of patients dissatisfied, likely due to the drastic reduction in mobility it causes.

BYU engineering professors Anton Bowden (left) and Larry Howell (right) examine their artificial disc implant

Howell is a leading expert in compliant mechanisms – deformable devices such as archery bows and tweezers. He and Bowden had student engineers construct various prototype discs which they first tested mechanically and then in spines removed from cadavers.

“To mimic the response of the spine is very difficult because of the constrained space and the sophistication of the spine and its parts,” Howell said. “A compliant mechanism is more human-like, more natural, and the one we’ve created behaves like a healthy disc.”

BYU licensed the technology to Utah-based company Crocker Spinal Technologies, which plans to develop the product for market release as early as next year. That's potentially welcome news for the many who currently pay the stiff price of chronic back pain.

Source: BYU

About the Author
Randolph Jonsson A native San Franciscan, Randolph attended the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland before finding his way to the film business. Eventually, he landed a job at George Lucas' Industrial Light + Magic, where he worked on many top-grossing films in both the camera and computer graphics departments. A proud member of MENSA, he's passionate about technology, optimal health, photography, marine biology, writing, world travel and the occasional, well-crafted gin and tonic! All articles by Randolph Jonsson

Cmon Gizmag this article has no info on the device. Whats it made out of how does it attach why is it different? Maybe you don't know they have replacement discs already?

The Hoff

The artificial disc seems like promising news, but I am particularly wary of artificial substances being placed into the spine http://www.newsinferno.com/defective-medical-devices/medtronic-infuse-studies-faulted-for-downplaying-side-effects/38357

Carol Zhu

There is an EXCELLENT surgeon in Australia named Dr Richard Kahler who helped design and create such a device. Operates in Brisbane out of Briz Brain & Spine.

I was meant to get one of these in 2010 (shouldn't pick up fat chicks - literally :/ but complications from previous surgeries prevented it.

Would not hesitate to use this surgeon again.

Not exactly sure if the information about how its made and what it does will be any help... Better to talk to the bloke who created it and "installs" it.


Seem to remember someone had synthesised Kangaroo tendon material-that is known to be able to store and rebound energy for the animals impressive speed on the 'Hop'. This was hoped to provide a good replacement material for vertebrae discs.


Wow, that's awesome! I wonder if it would help sufferers of Ankylosing Spondylitis. I have some damaged discs, but I'm not sure if they're from my AS or other stuff.

Dave Andrews

be nice if it were an injectable substance that could reinforce the natural discs- so a neurosurgeon didn't have the option of messing up the nerves in the process.


Carol Zhu - thank you for that post. I have been looking at whether to have fusion or disk replacements. Right now, I am making do with medications and after doing a lot of research, I will continue as is until the materials and procedures improve. Thank you again for that post.

Sonya Jones

I would love to hear from people who have undergone the replacement disc surgery. I need to have two replaced in my lumbar area and one in my cervical area. my email is jonsims@ksmetals.net thank you.

Jon Sims
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