lumbar disc herniation

A study investigating kinematic changes in subjects with lumbar disc herniation (LDH) performing five activities of active daily living (ADL) found that LDH patients were more apt than healthy subjects to restrict the lower lumbar (LLx) and upper lumbar (ULx) spinal motions when performing ADLs. The LDH patients used pelvic rotation to compensate for their reduced lumbar flexibility and increased pelvic tilt and lower extremity flexion during problematic ADLs. 

What’s at Stake?

Lower back pain affects up to 85 percent of the worldwide population—especially those over 40—and can contribute to musculoskeletal problems when the lower spine and its surrounding structure is overloaded. Because LBP patients often restrict musculoskeletal motions during ADLs to avoid pain, understanding the kinematic idiosyncrasies of LBP patients during their ADLs is essential when treating spinal issues through physical therapy that involves gait and functional training. 

Past research has indicated LBP patients had less transverse plane movement than healthy subjects during level walking exercises. One study found that LBP subjects were more likely to exhibit spinal or pelvic rotation, while another study came to the opposite conclusion but found that LBP patients had less range of motion (ROM) in the lumbar spine than the control group. Conflicting studies have concluded that LBP patients had significant reductions in the range of hip flexion and spinal movement across all three planes during trunk flexion or better ROM in the lumbar spine, with more restriction in the pelvic or thorax ROM. The divergent conclusions are likely due to the trunk and whole lumbar being considered a single, rigid segment, rather than interconnected segments that operate independently. The prior studies may also have neglected to consider the kinematic differences among LBP patient subgroups. Analyzing the variability of joints and segments is vital when studying LBP patients and their unique kinematics. 

This study focused on how lumbar disc herniation (LDH) specifically contributes to LBP, including the lower trunk, thorax, hip, and pelvis. The goal of the study was to use a computing model to study LBP patients with LDH and understand their pain-related modulation of their lower extremities and multi-segmental trunk kinematics during level walking, stair climbing, trunk flexion, ipsilateral pickup, and contralateral pickup. 

The Study

Twenty-six healthy males with a mean age of approximately 24 years and seven LHD diagnosed male patients who were, on average, approximately 28 years old participated in the study. The disc herniations occurred at L4/5 in three of the LDH patients, L5/S1 in three cases, and at both locations in one patient. 

The motion of thorax, ULx, LLx, pelvis, hip, and knee were tracked via 3D active markers placed in various locations on the subjects’ spines, pelvises, thighs, and shanks. All the markers were placed by a single surgeon, who had previously demonstrated the five ADLs the subjects were to perform. After practicing the motions a few times, the subjects repeated them while data was collected through the active markers. 

The kinematics of the thoracic segment, ULx, LLx, pelvis, hip, and knee were calculated using a modified Gait-full-body computing model that would analyze the motion of each lumbar vertebra using at least three markers. The kinematic spine and hip angles were analyzed with the computing model using a Euler rotation sequence of spinal segments or thigh/pelvis movement, and the thoracic segment as it related to the L1 vertebra. The ROM for all segmental or joint angles during flexion-extension or gait cycles across all three planes in three planes was calculated, and data analysis was performed using a custom program. 

Results

The LDH subjects had much more pelvic rotation and LLx rotation than the healthy subjects during level walking. The LDH group had much less ROM for thoracic flexion, pelvic tilt, and hip abduction during stair climbing, but they showed more ROM for LLx rotation. No clinically significant variance was noted between the two groups for thoracic flexion, trunk flexion or ipsilateral and contralateral pickups. Lumbar flexion ROM was significantly decreased in the LDH group—especially for ULx with nearly no sagittal angular displacement.  

The findings suggest that people with LDH modulate their movement patterns and motor regulation in response to, or avoidance of pain. There were evident kinematic differences between the healthy subjects and LDH patients in this study. LDH patients had more pelvic rotation and increased LLx rotation during level walking, contradicting earlier studies where patients had less than or similar pelvic rotation when compared with healthy subjects. The use of different marker sets, study methods, computer models, and speed of motion might account for the varying test results, but it appears that pelvis and LLx motions in the transverse plane may have a more pronounced effect than that of the other two planes during LDH abnormal motion level walking analysis. 

Conclusion

In regard to the direction or range of motion, there were contrasting kinematic characteristics and different adaptations to LDH between the ULx and LLx in this study. The thoracic motion did not appear to be affected by the LDH when subjects were performing the ADLs, with the exception of stair climbing. During all five ADLs the LDH patients maintained limited lumbar flexion, and their pelvises, knees, and hips compensated for the lost lumbar motion capacity in the sagittal plane during contralateral pickups. In four of the five ADLs (the exception being stair climbing), the LDH patients increased their pelvic rotation significantly. They also had higher rates of antiphase movement between thorax and pelvis in the two pickups and in level walking and stair climbing in the transverse plane between ULx and LLx.

The findings of this study should help provide a more comprehensive understanding of how LDH influences kinematics and lead to more specific treatments and better therapeutic outcomes for LDH patients. 

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