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Matrix Biol. 2009 Sep;28(7):384-9. doi: 10.1016/j.matbio.2009.06.004. Epub 2009 Jul 5.

The internal mechanical functioning of intervertebral discs and articular cartilage, and its relevance to matrix biology.

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  • 1Department of Anatomy, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK.


Degeneration of intervertebral discs and articular cartilage can cause pain and disability. Risk factors include genetic inheritance and age, but mechanical loading also is important. Its influence has been investigated using miniature pressure transducers to measure the distribution of compressive stress (force per unit area) within loaded tissue. The technique quantifies stress concentrations, and detects regions that behave in a fluid-like manner. Intervertebral discs demonstrate a central fluid-like region which normally extends beyond the anatomical nucleus pulposus so that the whole disc functions like a "water bed". With increasing age, the fluid region shrinks and pressure within it falls. Stress concentrations appear in the surrounding anulus fibrosus, with location depending on posture. Stress concentrations become large in degenerated discs, and are intensified by sustained loading or injury. Articular cartilage never exhibits an internal fluid pressure: stress gradients and concentrations normally occur within it, and are intensified by sustained loading. Excessive matrix stresses can cause pain and progressive damage. They also inhibit matrix synthesis and stimulate production of matrix-degrading enzymes. In this way, injury to chondroid tissues can initiate a 'vicious circle' of abnormal matrix stresses, abnormal metabolism, weakened matrix, and further injury, which explains many features of their degeneration.

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