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Introduction: Loads acting on scoliotic spines are thought to be asymmetrical and involved in progression of the scoliotic deformity. Abnormal loading patterns could lead to changes in bone and disc cell and activity and hence to vertebral body and disc wedging. At present however there are no direct measurements of intradiscal stresses or pressures in scoliotic spines.

Methods: Stress profilometry was used to measure horizontal and vertical stresses at 5mm intervals across 25 intervertebral discs of 7 scoliotic patients during anterior reconstructive surgery. Identical horizontal and vertical stresses for at least two consecutive readings defined a region of hydrostatic pressure. Results were compared with similar stress profiles measured during surgery across 10 discs of 4 spines with no lateral curvature and with data from the literature.

Results: Profiles across scoliotic discs were very different from those measured across normal discs of a similar age. Hydrostatic pressure regions were only seen in 16/25 discs, extended only over a short distance and were displaced towards the convexity. Mean pressures were significantly greater (0.24MPa) than those measured in other anaesthetised patients (< 0.06 MPa). A stress peak in the concave annulus was a common feature (13/25) in scoliotic discs. In 21/25 discs, stresses in the concave annulus were greater than in the convex annulus, indicating asymmetric loading in these anaesthetised, recumbent patients.

Conclusions: Intradiscal pressures and stresses in scoliotic discs are abnormal even in the absence of significant applied load. Disc cells respond to changes in pressure, hydration and deformation by altering matrix synthesis and turnover in vivo and in vitro. Hence, whatever the cause of the abnormal pressures and stresses in the scoliotic discs, if present during daily life, these could lead to disc matrix changes and especially if asymmetrical, to disc wedging and progression of the scoliotic deformity.

Work supported by Fondation Cotrel

Correspondence should be addressed to Jeremy C T Fairbank at The Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, Windmill Road, Headington, Oxford OX7 7LD, UK