Backache is one of society’s most common medical problems. Scientists now agree that pain is frequently due to so-called "unstable" spinal behaviour: when a patient bends, turns or stretches, the individual vertebrae do not move normally, thus putting pressure on spinal nerve cords. Doctors generally examine spine movement on the basis of x-rays which, until now, were limited to two-dimensional representation.
Stephen Ferguson and his team from the Institute for Surgical Technologies and Biomechanics at the University of Bern have now developed a method of reproducing spinal movements in three-dimensional form. The principle: a video x-ray machine, with which many clinics are equipped, films the spine while a patient performs prescribed movements. A unique new image processing procedure then converts this data into a 3D motion model. The entire procedure is more or less run in real time – producing results that until now have only been obtained by painful, seldom used methods in which probes were implanted on the vertebrae under the skin.
The researchers aim to develop a database for spinal movements. "Pictures of healthy people and patients might help distinguish between normal and abnormal spinal movements", comments Stephen Ferguson. This, in turn, would facilitate the development of new implants like artificial disc replacements.
However, the method must first become established in practice. For there is still one problem to be tackled: instead of x-rays, doctors are increasingly basing their spinal diagnoses on magnetic resonance imaging. Although this technique offers less radiation exposure, it does not image bones so precisely. The researchers are now working to adapt their method so that magnetic resonance data can also be used. Ferguson views their chances of success optimistically – thus making the method more attractive to partners in industry.
National Research Programme "Musculoskeletal Health – Chronic Pain" (NRP 53)
Over a period of 5 years, a total of 26 different research projects explored the musculoskeletal system of the Swiss population. In doing so, researchers examined the causes of ailments, subjected existing therapies to critical analysis and developed new approaches for maintaining or restoring musculoskeletal health.