Old Bones Teach About Modern Back Pain

The bones of people who died as long ago as a hundred years are being used in the development of new treatments for chronic back pain. It is the first time old bones have been used in this way.

The research is bringing together the unusual combination of latest computer modeling techniques developed at the University of Leeds, and archeology and anthropology expertise at the University of Bristol, according to a press release.

  The computerized tomography scans lead to detailed 3-dimensional computer models of vertebra.
  The computerized tomography scans lead to detailed 3-dimensional computer models of vertebra.
  Image: EPSRC

With Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funding, spines from as many as 40 skeletons housed in museums and university anatomy collections are being analyzed in the research.

The data, generated on different spine conditions and on how spines vary in size and shape, is playing a key role in the development of innovative computer models. This will enable the potential impact of new treatments and implant materials to be evaluated before they are used on patients.

Ultimately, it also will be possible to use the models to pinpoint the type of treatment best suited to an individual patient.

“Back pain is an extremely common condition, but everyone has a slightly different spine so developing new treatments can be a real challenge,” David Willetts, minister for universities and science, stated in the release. “It’s also truly fascinating that old bones and new technology can come together to deliver benefits for patients.”

This is the first software of its kind designed for the treatment of back conditions. The research also will speed up the process of clinical trials for new treatments, which currently can take as long as 10 years.

The data provided by the old bones will be used to supplement similar data collected from bodies donated to science, which are limited in number and mainly come from older age groups.

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