Scientists have developed a tiny, artificial disc, which mimics the flexibility of the spine, a feat they say could revolutionise the treatment of back pain.

Developed by a team at Brigham Young University in the U.S., the “roller” when inserted in the spine replaces damaged discs and provides the same range of movement as the real one.

The replacement disc has a rolling action to allow the spine to move in different directions. It’s intended as an alternative to fusion, where bones either side of the damaged disc area are welded together to reduce pain, the Daily Mail reported.

Spinal discs, which contain a gel-like substance, help, cushion the vertebrae during movement. While they are critical for movement, the discs can become the source of back pain when they degenerate. Treatment ranges from painkillers and physiotherapy, to different types of surgery.

One of the most common forms is spinal fusion, in which the vertebrae on either side of the damaged disc are welded together to make one solid bone. However, the operation can limit the flexibility of the spine and restrict movement.

To overcome this problem, the Brigham team designed and developed the artificial roller that can move forwards and backwards, as well as side to side.

The device is inserted between the vertebra and disc — tiny spikes in the plates anchor it in place, leaving the roller unimpeded. Early tests on animals and human spines suggest that the device does provide significantly more flexibility than standard disc replacement.

The researchers are now using the device in larger clinical trials. If they are successful, they hope to launch the technology in the next three years.

Commenting on the technology, Jane Tadman of Arthritis Research U.K. said: “We welcome news of this new implant. Disc replacement allows a close approximation to the normal spine by allowing it to remain flexible, however new designs need adequate testing.”

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