The new tool that hopes to better predict spine fractures is not being developed by the medical community, but by mechanical engineers whose expertise lies in bridges and buildings. A professor of mechanical engineering at Boston University, Elise Morgan, Ph.D., is leveraging her engineering background and methods to create a screening technique will more accurately anticipate and diagnose spine fractures.
Spine fractures are one of the most common back injuries, affecting 40 percent of women ages 80 and older, and nearly 20 percent of men over 50. The fractures occur when the vertebrae, the small bones that make up the backbone, break and collapse causing sudden and chronic back pain. Patients’ risk of bone fractures are currently estimated with a bone density scan, a form of x-ray technology that measures bone strength. The scan generates a T-score, a rating of a patient’s bone density as normal, osteoporotic or osteopenic, meaning that they are at risk for osteoporosis. According to Morgan, the issue with this method is that,
“About half the people who fracture their spine are classified as normal based on their T-score. Clearly the scan is missing something.”
To create a more precise screening process, Morgan is utilizing mechanical engineering techniques that typically measure stress and pressure on bridges and buildings. To begin, the engineers took human vertebrae and applied pressure until they broke with machines that assess force and deformation. The machines also captured images during this process, which they used for determining when and where each vertebra failed.
The team found that nearly all vertebra failed when depressions and cracks began in the center of the top end plate, the cap of the vertebra, rather than in the bone. This is the first experiment that discovered a link between weakened end plates and the failure of the vertebra as a whole, potentially changing the way we understand and diagnose spine fractures.
With these findings, the team created computer models that simulate spine fractures, an important step closer to establishing the new screening process. The hope is that within a few years there will be enough data to produce a reliable test that will replace and outperform the bone density scan.
If you are suffering from chronic back pain, it could be due to an undiagnosed spine fracture. Contact our office for a consultation.