Back pain is one of the most common chronic conditions in western society. While pain is often caused by injury, degeneration of spinal disc tissue can also be a major contributing factor.
Degeneration of spinal disc tissue occurs when the molecular structure of the spinal disc changes with age. This leads to disc compression and greater structural rigidity. While treatments are being developed, diagnostic techniques to identify early stage degeneration are quite limited.
Associate professor of chemistry, Dr. Kristopher Ooms, and a number of undergraduate researchers have been studying various aspects of the molecular changes that occur in spinal discs using nuclear magnetic resonance techniques (the lab version of a medical MRI scanner). In recent years the team has focused on the spectroscopic signal from water as it interacts with collagen, a major molecular component in disc tissue.
The Ooms group has also studied water in human spinal disc samples, trying to draw correlations between the signal from specialized NMR experiments and the state of disc degeneration in hopes of providing molecular level information that can contribute to a better understanding of disc health and potentially to early diagnosis of degenerative disc disease.