Development of a novel in vitro cadaveric model for analysis of biomechanics and surgical treatment of Bertolotti syndrome

Spine J. 2020 Apr;20(4):638-656. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2019.10.011. Epub 2019 Oct 25.


Background context: Bertolotti syndrome (BS) is caused by pseudoarticulation between an aberrant L5 transverse process and the sacral ala, termed a lumbosacral transitional vertebra (LSTV). BS is thought to cause low back pain and is treated with resection or fusion, both of which have shown success. Acquiring cadavers with BS is challenging. Thus, we combined 3D printing, based on BS patient CT scans, with normal cadaveric spines to create a BS model. We then performed biomechanical testing to determine altered kinematics from LSTV with surgical interventions. Force sensing within the pseudojoint modeled nociception for different trajectories of motion and surgical conditions.

Purpose: This study examines alterations in spinal biomechanics with LSTVs and with various surgical treatments for BS in order to learn more about pain and degeneration in this condition, in order to help optimize surgical decision-making. In addition, this study evaluates BS histology in order to better understand the pathology and to help define pain generators-if, indeed, they actually exist.

Study design/setting: Model Development: A retrospective patient review of 25 patients was performed to determine the imaging criteria that defines the classical BS patient. Surgical tissue was extracted from four BS patients for 3D-printing material selection. Biomechanical Analysis. This was a prospective cadaveric biomechanical study of seven spines evaluating spinal motions, and loads, over various surgical conditions (intact, LSTV, and LSTV with various fusions). Additionally, forces at the LSTV joint were measured for the LSTV and LSTV with fusion condition. Histological Analysis: Histologic analysis was performed prospectively on the four surgical specimens from patients undergoing pseudoarthrectomy for BS at our institution to learn more about potential pain generators.

Patient sample: The cadaveric portion of the study involved seven cadaveric spines. Four patients were prospectively recruited to have their surgical specimens assessed histologically and biomechanically for this study. Patients under the age of 18 were excluded.

Outcome measures: Physiological measures recorded in this study were broken down into histologic analysis, tissue biomechanical analysis, and joint biomechanical analysis. Histologic analysis included pathologist interpretation of Hematoxylin and Eosin staining, as well as S-100 staining. Tissue biomechanical analysis included stiffness measurements. Joint biomechanical analysis included range of motion, resultant torques, relative axis angles, and LSTV joint forces.

Methods: This study received funding from the American Academy of Neurology Medical Student Research Scholarship. Three authors hold intellectual property rights in the simVITRO robotic testing system. No other authors had relevant conflicts of interest for this study. CT images were segmented for a representative BS patient and cadaver spines. Customized cutting and drilling guides for LSTV attachment were created for individual cadavers. 3D-printed bone and cartilage structural properties were based on surgical specimen stiffness, and specimens underwent histologic analysis via Hematoxylin and Eosin, as well as S-100 staining. Joint biomechanical testing was performed on the robotic testing system for seven specimens. Force sensors detected forces in the LSTV joint. Kruskal-Wallis tests and Dunnett's tests were used for statistical analysis with significance bounded to p<.05.

Results: LSTV significantly reduces motion at the L5-S1 level, particularly in lateral bending and axial rotation. Meanwhile, the LSTV increases adjacent segment motion significantly at the L2-L3 level, whereas other levels have nonsignificant trends toward increased motion with LSTV alone. Fusion involving L4-S1 (L4-L5 and L5-S1) to treat adjacent level degeneration associated with an LSTV is associated with a significant increase in adjacent segment motion at all levels other than L5-S1 compared to LSTV alone. Fusion of L5-S1 alone with LSTV significantly increases L3-L4 adjacent segment motion compared to LSTV alone. Last, ipsilateral lateral bending with or without ipsilateral axial rotation produces the greatest force on the LSTV, and these forces are significantly reduced with L5-S1 fusion.

Conclusions: BS significantly decreases L5-S1 mobility, and increases some adjacent segment motion, potentially causing patient activity restriction and discomfort. Ipsilateral lateral bending with or without ipsilateral axial rotation may cause the greatest discomfort overall in these patients, and fusion of the L5-S1 or L4-S1 levels may reduce pain associated with these motions. However, due to increased adjacent segment motion with fusions compared to LSTV alone, resection of the joint may be the better treatment option if the superior levels are not unstable preoperatively.

Clinical significance: This study's results indicate that patients with BS have significantly altered spinal biomechanics and may develop pain due to increased loading forces at the LSTV joint with ipsilateral lateral bending and axial rotation. In addition, increased motion at superior levels when an LSTV is present may lead to degeneration over time. Based upon results of LSTV joint force testing, these patients' pain may be effectively treated surgically with LSTV resection or fusion involving the LSTV level if conservative management fails. Further studies are being pursued to evaluate the relationship between in vivo motion of BS patients, spinal and LSTV positioning, and pain generation to gain a better understanding of the exact source of pain in these patients. The methodologies utilized in this study can be extrapolated to recreate other spinal conditions that are poorly understood, and for which few native cadaveric specimens exist.

Keywords: 3D-printing; Bertolotti syndrome; Biomechanics; Fusion; Lumbosacral transitional vertebra (LSTV); Pseudoarthrectomy; Robotic testing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't