Medicine & Health

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  • (2023) Ramakrishna, Vivek
    Low back pain, the worldwide leading cause of disability, is commonly treated with lumbar interbody fusion surgery to address degeneration, instability, deformity, and trauma of the spine. Following fusion surgery, nearly 20% experience complications requiring reoperation while 1 in 3 do not experience a meaningful improvement in pain. Implant subsidence and pseudarthrosis in particular present a multifaceted challenge in the management of a patient’s painful symptoms. Given the diversity of fusion approaches, materials, and instrumentation, further inputs are required across the treatment spectrum to prevent and manage complications. This thesis comprises biomechanical studies on lumbar spinal fusion that provide new insights into spinal fusion surgery from preoperative planning to postoperative monitoring. A computational model, using the finite element method, is developed to quantify the biomechanical impact of temporal ossification on the spine, examining how the fusion mass stiffness affects loads on the implant and subsequent subsidence risk, while bony growth into the endplates affects load-distribution among the surrounding spinal structures. The computational modelling approach is extended to provide biomechanical inputs to surgical decisions regarding posterior fixation. Where a patient is not clinically pre-disposed to subsidence or pseudarthrosis, the results suggest unilateral fixation is a more economical choice than bilateral fixation to stabilise the joint. While finite element modelling can inform pre-surgical planning, effective postoperative monitoring currently remains a clinical challenge. Periodic radiological follow-up to assess bony fusion is subjective and unreliable. This thesis describes the development of a ‘smart’ interbody cage capable of taking direct measurements from the implant for monitoring fusion progression and complication risk. Biomechanical testing of the ‘smart’ implant demonstrated its ability to distinguish between graft and endplate stiffness states. The device is prepared for wireless actualisation by investigating sensor optimisation and telemetry. The results show that near-field communication is a feasible approach for wireless power and data transfer in this setting, notwithstanding further architectural optimisation required, while a combination of strain and pressure sensors will be more mechanically and clinically informative. Further work in computational modelling of the spine and ‘smart’ implants will enable personalised healthcare for low back pain, and the results presented in this thesis are a step in this direction.