Biomechanical properties of healthy and degenerated nucleus pulposus (NP) are thought to be important for future regenerative strategies for intervertebral disc (IVD) repair. However, which properties are pivotal as design criteria when developing NP replacement materials is ill understood. Therefore, we determined and compared segmental biomechanics and NP viscoelastic properties in normal and mildly degenerated discs. In eight goats, three lumbar IVDs were chemically degenerated using chondroitinase ABC (CABC), confirmed with radiography and MRI after euthanasia 12 weeks post-operative. Neutral zone (NZ) stiffness and range of motion (ROM) were determined sagitally, laterally, and rotationally for each spinal motion segment (SMS) using a mechanical testing device. NPs were isolated for oscillatory shear experiments; elastic and viscous shear moduli followed from the ratio between shear stress and strain. Water content was quantified by weighing before and after freeze-drying. Disc height on radiographs and signal intensity on MRI decreased (6% and 22%, respectively, p < 0.01) after CABC treatment, confirming that chemical degeneration provides a good model of disc degeneration. Furthermore, CABC-injected IVDs had significantly lower NZ stiffness and larger ROM in lateral bending (LB) and axial rotation (AR) than controls. Rheometry consistently revealed significantly lower (10-12%) viscoelastic moduli after mild degeneration within goats, though the inter-animal differences were relatively large (complex modulus ∼12 to 41 kPa). Relative water content in the NP was unaffected by CABC, remaining at ∼75%. These observations suggest that viscoelastic properties have a marginal influence on mechanical behavior of the whole SMS. Therefore, when developing replacement materials the focus should be on other design criteria, such as biochemical cues and swelling pressure.
Copyright © 2012 Orthopaedic Research Society.