Is the nucleus pulposus a solid or a fluid? Mechanical behaviors of the nucleus pulposus of the human intervertebral disc

James C. Iatridis, Mark Weidenbaum, Lori A. Setton, C. Van Mow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

298 Scopus citations


Study Design. A new technique to measure the viscoelastic behavior of the nucleus pulposus in shear was used to assess its solid and fluid characteristics. Objectives. To review existing knowledge on mechanical behaviors of the nucleus pulposus, and to develop a new technique to study the viscoelastic behaviors of isolated nucleus pulposus samples in torsional (pure) shear under transient and dynamic conditions. Summary of Background Data. Numerous studies have investigated the swelling behavior of the nucleus and found the swelling pressure to range approximately 0.05-3 MPa, depending on loading conditions. Very few studies, however, have investigated the load- deformational behaviors of the nucleus pulposus. Methods. Thirteen nondegenerate samples of nucleus pulposus were harvested from lumber discs and tested in torsional shear under transient and dynamic test conditions. A linear viscoelastic law with variable amplitude relaxation spectrum was used to model the stress relaxation and dynamic frequency sweep experiments. The coefficients of the viscoelastic law were determined from the stress relaxation experiments, whereas the dynamic shear modulus and phase shift angle were determined from the frequency sweep. Results. The nucleus exhibits significant viscoelastic effects in shear. Under transient conditions, the stress relaxed to values near zero, which is indicative of the 'fluid-like' behaviors of the nucleus. Under dynamic conditions, however, the material parameters for the nucleus, magnitude of the complex modulus (7-21 kPa), and phase angle (23-31°) were more characteristic of a viscoelastic solid. The authors' proposed stress-strain law exhibited excellent agreement with the viscoelastic data. Conclusions. In response to shear deformations, the nucleus pulposus exhibited significant viscoelastic effects, characteristic of a fluid and a solid. Whether the nucleus pulposus behaves more as a fluid or a solid in vivo depends on the rate of loading.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1174-1184
Number of pages11
Issue number10
StatePublished - May 15 1996


  • dynamic modulus
  • intervertebral disc
  • material properties
  • nucleus pulposus
  • shear
  • viscoelasticity


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