The spine has several important functions including load transmission, permission of limited motion, and protection of the spinal cord. The vertebrae form functional spinal units, which represent the smallest segment that has characteristics of the entire spinal column. Discs and paired facet joints within each functional unit form a three-joint complex between which loads are transmitted. Surrounding the spinal motion segment are ligaments, composed of elastin and collagen, and joint capsules which restrict motion to within normal limits. Ligaments have variable strengths and act via different lever arm lengths to contribute to spinal stability. As a consequence of the longer moment arm from the spinous process to the instantaneous axis of rotation, inherently weaker ligaments (interspinous and supraspinous) are able to provide resistance to excessive flexion. Degenerative processes of the spine are a normal result of aging and occur on a spectrum. During the second decade of life, the intervertebral disc demonstrates histologic evidence of nucleus pulposus degradation caused by reduced end plate blood supply. As disc height decreases, the functional unit is capable of an increased range of axial rotation which subjects the posterior facet capsules to greater mechanical loads. A concurrent change in load transmission across the end plates and translation of the instantaneous axis of rotation further increase the degenerative processes at adjacent structures. The behavior of the functional unit is impacted by these processes and is reflected by changes in the stress-strain relationship. Back pain and other clinical symptoms may occur as a result of the biomechanical alterations of degeneration.
Keywords: Biomechanics; Degenerative; Spinal disorders.