Annular Tear

A good view of the annulus fibrosus of the disc.
A good view of the annulus fibrosus of the disc.. BSIP/UIG/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Annular Tear

An annular tear is one type of discogenic condition in the spine that occurs when the fibers that make up the outer covering of the intervertebral disc (which is known as the annulus) either breaks or separates.

Annular Tear or Annular Fissure - The Clash of the  Words

Note that, "annular tear" is not a standard  term doctors use to describe or diagnose this condition.  The reason is that the word tear suggests that some type of trauma lead to the separation or break in the fibers.

 Most of the time, the tears are a result of long-term, often age-related degenerative changes in the disc and spine.

Given that, the standardized term doctors do use is "annular fissure."

About the Annulus

The annulus consists of several concentric layers of tough fibers (the material they are made of is called fibrocartilage) that surround, contain and protect the soft nucleus located inside the disc.  The nucleus is a shock absorber; it buffers the weight of the body as it impacts the joint when you sit, stand or move.  It also helps maintain the integrity of the intervertebral joint by supporting the space between the two vertebra that comprise it.

The layers of the annulus fibrosus  are oriented obliquely to one another; in other words, they criss-cross to provide scaffolding, which makes the outer covering of the disc very strong and generally able to contain the nucleus material.  

What Happens When the Annulus Tears?

But when an annular tear or annular fissure does occur, the fibers either separate from one another or are severed from their place of insertion on the nearby spinal bone.

A tear may also be seen as break through the fibers of one or more of the layers. Annular tears sometimes lead to herniated discs.  They can be painful but some are asymptomatic.

Treatment for an Annular Tear or Annular Fissure

Conservative treatment for an annular tear or fissure is generally sufficient to keep the pain and other symptoms at bay.

 Such treatments may include pain medication (over the counter or by prescription) and/or physical therapy.  Physical therapy treatment may include exercises, traction and more.

Should these measures fail to relieve your pain, your doctor may suggest a steroid or other type of injection, or minimally invasive spine surgery.

Sources:

Fardon, D.F., Williams, A.L., Dohring, E.J., Murtagh, F.R., Rothman, Gabriel, S.L., Sze, G.K. Lumbar disc nomenclature: version 2.0: Recommendations of the combined task forces of the North American Spine Society, the American Society of Spine Radiology and the American Society of Neuroradiology. Spine J. 2014 Nov 1;14(11):2525-45. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2014.04.022. Epub 2014 Apr 24.

Jones, Jeremy, Gallard, Frank, A., et. al. Annular fissure. Radiopaedia.org website.

Kapandji, I.A. The Physiology of the Joints. Churchill Livingstone. 1974. New York.

Lumbar Discogenic Pain. Physiopedia website. Accessed Dec 2015

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