Study design: A biomechanical analysis correlating internal disc strains and tissue damage during simulated repetitive lifting.
Objective: To understand the failure modes during simulated safe and unsafe repetitive lifting.
Summary of background data: Repetitive lifting has been shown to lead to lumbar disc herniation (LDH). In vitro studies have developed a qualitative understanding of the effect of repetitive loading on LDH. However, no studies have measured internal disc strains and subsequently correlated these with disc damage.
Methods: Thirty human cadaver lumbar functional spinal units were subjected to an equivalent of 1 year of simulated repetitive lifting under safe and unsafe levels of compression, in combination with flexion (13-15°), and right axial rotation (2°) for 20,000 cycles or until failure. Safe or unsafe lifting were applied as a compressive load to mimic holding a 20 kg weight either close to, or at arm's length, from the body, respectively. Maximum shear strains (MSS) were measured, and disc damage scores were determined in nine regions from axial post-test magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and macroscopic images.
Results: Twenty percent of specimens in the safe lifting group failed before 20,000 cycles due to endplate failure, compared with 67% in the unsafe group. Over half of the specimens in the safe lifting group failed via either disc protrusion or LDH, compared with only 20% via protrusion in the unsafe group. Significant positive correlations were found between MRI and macroscopic damage scores in all regions (rs > 0.385, P < 0.049). A significant positive correlation was observed in the left lateral region for MSS versus macroscopic damage score (rs = 0.486, P < 0.037) and MSS versus failure mode (rs = 0.724, P = 0.018, only specimens with disc failure). Pfirrmann Grade 3 discs were strongly associated with subsequent LDH (P = 0.003).
Conclusion: Increased shear strains were observed in the contralateral side to the applied rotation as disc injury progressed from protrusion to LDH. Larger compressive loads applied to simulate unsafe lifting led to frequent early failure of the endplate, however, smaller compressive loads at similar flexion angles applied under safe lifting led to more loading cycles before failure, where the site of failure was more likely to be the disc. Our study demonstrated that unsafe lifting leads to greater risk of injury compared with safe lifting, and LDH and disc protrusion were more common in the posterior/posterolateral regions.
Level of evidence: N/A.