Seeing the Spine in 3D
In an effort to help patients with low back pain, scientists are studying how the spine moves. We know that patients with chronic low back pain have reduced motion in the spine. New three-dimensional (3D) equipment is allowing researchers to study patterns of motion.

Now that we know "how much" the spine moves, the next step is to find out "how" it moves. The "how" of spine movement is referred to as patterns of motion. Three directions of motion were studied: bending forward and back, bending to the side, and turning or rotating to one side.

In the normal, healthy spine, the spine moves through each of these motions. Some movement patterns occur at the same time. For example, bending to the side also causes the joint to turn, or rotate. This pattern of two motions together is the same for everyone who doesn't have back pain.

In patients with chronic low back pain, it seems that there are up to three different ways to do each motion. There may be side bending and rotation to the same side or side bending with no rotation at all. Only a small number of patients with back pain have the normal side bending with rotation to the opposite side. 

This new information will help doctors connect the patient's symptoms with back function. It may be possible for doctors to listen to patients' symptoms and know what changes in motion are occurring inside the spine. Surgery to fuse the spine may be needed, but the hope is to find a treatment that will restore normal motion.
Teija Lund, MD, et al. Three-Dimensional Motion Patterns During Active Bending in Patients With Chronic Low Back Pain. In Spine. September 1, 2002. Vol. 27. No. 17. Pp. 1865-1874.