I was recently contacted by another doctor who asked if I could help him to create a 3D printed replicate of his spine to visualize pinched nerves in his low back and aid with planning a future back surgery. In order to work this doctor has to stand for long hours while performing surgical procedures. Excruciating low back pain had limited his ability to stand to only 30 minutes. As you can imagine, this means he couldn't work. Things only got worse after he had low back surgery.
A CT scan of his lumbar spine (the low back portion of the spine) was performed. It showed that his fifth lumbar vertebra was partially sacralized. This means it looked more like a sacral vertebra than a lumbar vertebra. Was this causing his problem? On the image slices of the CT scan it was difficult to tell.
How the Spine is Organized
First, a word about the different vertebrae (bones) in the spine. There are four main sections of spinal bones. The seven cervical vertebrae are in the neck and support the head. They are generally small but flexible, and allow rotation of the head. The 12 thoracic vertebrae are in the chest. Their most distinctive characteristic is they all have associated ribs, which make up the rib cage. The five lumbar vertebrae are in the low back. These are large and strong, and designed for supporting lots of weight. They do not have associated ribs. The five sacral vertebrae are in the pelvis. In adults, they are fused together and effectively form a single bone, the sacrum. The coccyx, or tailbone, which is a tiny bone at the bottom end of the vertebral column, can be considered a fifth spinal section. This is the bone that is often injured when you fallen your behind. Figure 1 shows the different sections of the vertebral column.
Figure 1. Sections of the vertebral column. Source:aimisspine.com
Although the bones of the individual sections of the spine usually have their own unique features, it is not uncommon for vertebrae in one section to have features typically associated with an adjacent section. This is particularly true of the vertebrae that are immediately adjacent to a neighboring section. These hybrids are a mix between both sections, are called transitional vertebrae. Do you recall that only thoracic vertebrae have associated ribs? Occasionally the highest lumbar vertebra, L1, will have tiny ribs attached to it. This is a normal variant and is usually harmless. Radiologists who are interpreting medical scans need to be careful to not confuse an L1 vertebra which may have tiny ribs for the adjacent T12 vertebra which normally has ribs. Similarly, the lowest lumbar vertebra, L5, which is normally unfused, can exhibit fusion. As you recall, fusion is a characteristic of sacral vertebrae.
A Congenital Spine Abnormality
This was the situation with our physician. His lowest lumbar vertebra, L5, has partially fused with S1, the highest sacral vertebra. This condition is congenital. He has had it all his life. The fusion can have the side effect of creating a very narrow bony canal through which the L5 nerve roots can exit the spine. Normally, these nerve roots would have much more space as a large gap would exist between the normally unfused L5 and S1 vertebrae. Was this the problem? The CT scan showed the sacralization of L5, but it was difficult to get a sense for how tight the holes through which the nerves exit, the neural foramina, were. See Figures 2 and 3.
Figure 2: Coronal CT image through the L5 and S1 vertebral bodies. Is this the cause of the problem? It is very difficult to get an intuitive sense of what is going on with these flat image slices.
Figure 3: Image from Figure 2 with the neural foramina marked.
Seeking help through Embodi3D
The doctor contacted me through the Embodi3D website and asked if I could create a 3D model design and 3D print of his lumbar spine to help him and his team of spinal specialists understand his unique anatomy better. Of course, I was happy to help. The CT scan was of high quality and allowed me to extract the bones and metallic spinal fusion implants with little trouble. The individual nerves, however, were very difficult to see even on a high quality CT scan. I had to manually segment them one image at a time, which was a very tedious and time-consuming process. After fusing everything together, I had a very good digital model of the lumbar spine. I created some photorealistic 3D renders to illustrate the key findings.
Figures 4 and 5 show the very tight L5-S1 bony neural foramina. The inter-vertebral disc sits within the gap between the two vertebral bodies, and you can see how a lateral bulge from this disc would significantly pinch these exiting nerve roots.
Figure 4: Right L5 nerve root (yellow) exiting the tight neural foramen caused by the fused L5 and S1 lateral processes.
Figure 5: Left L5 nerve root (yellow) exiting the tight neural foramen caused by the fused L5 and S1 lateral processes.
Additionally, I showed that a bone screw that had been placed during the last surgery had partially exited the L4 vertebral body and was in very close proximity, and probably touching, the adjacent nerve root. Ouch! This can be seen in Figure 6. This may explain why the pain seem to get worse after the last surgery.
Figure 6: Transpedicular orthopedic screw which has partially exited the L4 vertebral body and is in very close proximity or in contact with the right L3 nerve root.
The Final 3D Printed Spine Model
The doctor wanted his spine 3D printed in transparent material, so I used a stereolithographic printer with transparent resin. I printed the spine in two separate parts that could be separated and fit together. When separated, the nerves exiting through the neural foramina can be inspected from inside the spinal canal, which gives an added degree of understanding.
Final pictures of the transparent 3D printed model are shown below.
I just recently shipped the model to this doctor and don't yet know how his back problems will be resolved. With this 3D printed model in hand however, he will be able to have much more meaningful discussions with his spinal surgeons about the best way to definitively fix his low back problems. I hope that the 3D printed spine model will literally help to get this good doctor back on his feet again.