Research by Laura Baumgartner of the BCN MedTech Unit combines experimental research with mathematical and computational techniques to predict intervertebral disc degeneration.
Lower back pain is the most widespread musculoskeletal problem in the population, with a huge economic and social impact. According to data for 2017, years of living with disability due to lower back pain have increased by more than 50% since 1990, especially in low- and middle-income countries.
In addition, it is the main cause of employee absenteeism, and the difficulty of establishing a clear diagnosis limits treatment options, which usually focus on the pain treatment, without being able to propose possibilities for curing the problem. As a result, people suffering with chronic low back pain are often greatly misunderstood. The difficulty for health professionals is that there are many causes of low back pain and they are difficult to identify. Degeneration of the lumbar intervertebral discs usually causes more than a third of low back pain. While a better understanding of this degeneration can bring great benefits to the treatment and management of the disease, the degeneration of the lumbar intervertebral discs is highly multifactorial and the mechanisms are poorly understood, despite advances in experimental and clinical research.
Researchers in the area of Biomechanics and Mechanobiology (BMMB) at the Univeritat Pompeau Fabra Biomedical Engineering Research Unit BCN MedTech directed by Jerôme Noailly have been working for more than ten years on the development of computer models that can reflect the mechanisms associated with intervertebral disc degeneration. These models combine mechanics and biology. They allow generating information that is not directly measurable, to discover levers that can slow down or deactivate the degenerative processes that take place in addition to the effects of natural ageing in some people. In recent years they have been inspired by the modelling used in systems biology to create a computer model to understand the complex cellular interactions that take place inside the intervertebral discs. The results have been published in the journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology and are part of the doctoral thesis of the researcher Laura Baumgartner.
Intervertebral discs are large gelatinous sacs largely composed of water, up to 80% of the volume in the central area. Like sponges, if they lose water they are crushed by the pressure exerted by the body. Dehydration of the discs is common in cases of degeneration and there is currently no treatment to rehydrate the affected tissues. UPF researchers are trying to understand the reasons and dynamics for this dehydration and degeneration.
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