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The Role of the Lumbar Facet Joints in Spinal Stability: Identification of Alternative Paths of Loading

Haher, Thomas R., MD*; O'Brien, Michael, MD*; Dryer, Joseph W., MD*; Nucci, Robert, MD*; Zipnick, Richard, MD*; Leone, Donald J., PhD, PE

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Study Design The role of the facet joints in spinal stability was analyzed using long-segment cadaver spines.

Objectives To establish the existence of alternate paths of loading when the facet joints and anulus are compromised.

Summary of Background Data It has been reported that facet arthrosis and degeneration never occur without the presence of adjacent disc degeneration. This suggests that intact discs protect the facets from severe loading and degeneration. Based on these studies of spinal mechanics, the authors devised an experiment to further explain the relationship of the disc and the facet in sharing compressive loads.

Methods Ten human cadaver spines were placed unsupported in an Instron Model 4206 Tensile Testing Machine. Compressive loads of 1000 N then were applied to the specimens at a rate of 20 N per minute. The facet joints, anterior anulus, and lateral anulus then were destroyed sequentially at L3 and the loading cycles were repeated. The load-deflection curves for each cycle were evaluated and compared with the intact specimen.

Results Unilateral and bilateral facetectomies had little affect on the ability of the specimen to support a physiologic load. Facetectomies in combination with anterior anulus destruction showed a significant change in the ability of the specimen to support a load with an extension moment applied.

Conclusions The facet joints of the lumbar spine are not the principle support structures in extension. With destruction of the facets, an alternate path of loading is established. The alternate path of loading transfers axial loads to the anulus and anterior longitudinal ligament to support the spine. Although facet joint destruction will not produce acute instability, it will transfer the loads to the adjacent disc and conceivably accelerate its degeneration.

Department of Orthopaedics, SUNY-HSC at Brooklyn, Brooklyn, New York, and Biomechanics Research Institute, University of Hartford, Hartford, Connecticut.

© Lippincott-Raven Publishers.