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BYU engineers bring big changes to lower-back pain treatment


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PROVO — Engineers at Brigham Young University have developed a new method for treating lower back pain that they hope will become the norm: an artificial spinal disc that imitates the movement of the original.

The artificial disc was developed by engineering professors Anton Bowdon and Larry Howell, and alumnus Peter Halverson. They say the disc is able to facilitate natural spinal movement better than the method du jour — fusion surgery, which replaces a spinal disc with bone.

Fusion surgery is meant to relieve back pain associated with movement, but the patient satisfaction rate hovers around 50 percent. Bowden said lower- back pain is "the most severe type of pain you can experience that won't kill you," but that the new artificial disc will alleviate pain by restoring the natural motion of the spine — something fusion surgery does not do.

The replacement disc is a compliant mechanism: a jointless structure that uses flexibility to create movement, much like tweezers or a bow and arrow. The mechanism is more human-like and natural than other treatments, Howell said.

"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. "The (disc) we've created behaves like a healthy disc."

BYU students built the prototypes and both machine- and cadaver-tested the discs. The tests showed the replacement disc behaved similarly to a healthy human disc, according to Howell.

"Putting it in a cadaver and having it do what we engineered it to do was really rewarding," he said. "It has a lot of promise for eventually making a difference in a lot of people's lives.

Step one in making a difference is marketing the product for distribution, which the team has already taken care of. The discs will be developed to market by Crocker Spinal Technologies, a Utah company with BYU ties.

They expect the discs to be distributed internationally as early as next year.

According to the National Institutes of Health, back pain is the second-most common neurological ailment in the U.S., surpassed only by headaches in its prevalence. Research into the disc replacement surgery is currently being done on a federal level for patients with degenerative disc disease.

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Stephanie Grimes

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