In the future, 3D printing could assist surgeons in preparing for complex spinal surgeries and provide better-adapted bone implants granting relief for those living with osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis is a health condition that weakens bones, increasing the risk of breaks and fractures considerably. The bones of osteoporosis patients can become so weak that they can be broken by a simple sneeze or cough. The disease often remains undiagnosed until such a break occurs. And those living with osteoporosis know all too well that one break commonly leads to another, and long-term pain from such fractures is common.
There are currently an estimated 200 million people living with osteoporosis worldwide¹ and with an aging population, this bone disease that commonly affects the elderly is only expected to rise.
Fortunately, osteoporosis treatment is just one of the many fields of medicine that could be radically improved by 3D printing technology, which used computer design software to print bondable materials layer by layer creating a solid 3D model.
Advances in such revolutionary fabrication methods have led to the rise of highly accurate bio-manufacturing, which orthopedic clinics can use to develop solid bone models that can aid training, auxiliary materials for orthopedic surgery. The method is even being used to fabricate bone implants that can replace damaged tissues.
A new review paper published in the journal Artificial Intelligence Device Development and Applications in Rehabilitation Medicine² examines the current status of 3D printing interventions for one of the most common and painful symptoms of osteoporosis; the damage it causes to the spine.
Using 3D Printing to Assist in Spinal Surgery
One of the most common signs of advanced osteoporosis is a stooped posture that arises from the deterioration of bones in the spine, which makes it difficult for that skeletal structure to support bodyweight.
This spinal damage can be countered to some extent by spinal surgery, but such operations are incredibly difficult. As the body’s most significant system of bones and muscles, the spine is made up of a range of varying different tissues, all of which can be altered by physiological effects and even the action of gravity on the body.
Using x-rays and other imaging data in conjunction with computer software, 3D navigational models of an individual patient’s spine can be created that allow surgeons to familiarize themselves with the intricacies of unique spinal structures in preparation for operations. This cuts down a patient’s time on the operating table, limiting radiation exposure, also reducing the risk of bleeding and other complications that arise from surgery. In addition to this, precise 3D modeling can also reduce raw material usage by allowing surgeons to precisely place structural aids like screws, pins, or nails.
The Future of Surgical Interventions With 3D Printing
When it comes to actual interventions, titanium is currently the preferred material for spinal implants due to its strength and chemical inertness. Unfortunately, this former quality means that titanium is a poor match for natural bone in terms of density.
3D printing could also assist in this aspect of spinal surgery, by replacing titanium with a vast range of materials, or simply by allowing doctors to print titanium-plastic hybrid structures that provide strength and flexibility where needed.
Further into the future 3D printing could allow for the rise of active biomaterials that can partake in the controlled release of drugs directly to the patient’s spinal, thus encouraging rehabilitation.
The authors of the review paper make very clear that actual surgical implants created via 3D printing are still in need of future research.
1. Sözen, T., et al, , ‘An overview and management of osteoporosis,’ European Journal of Rheumatology, [doi: 10.5152/eurjrheum.2016.048]
2. Li. Y., Yang. T., Bing. W., Feng. C., Pan. J., et al, , ‘The Effect of 3D Printing Metal Materials on Osteoporosis Treatment,’ Artificial Intelligence Device Development and Applications in Rehabilitation Medicine, [doi.org/10.1155/2021/9972867]