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Annular tear information

An annular tear develops when the outer portion of a spinal disc rips under constant pressure from the surrounding vertebrae.

Causes of an annular tear

Spinal discs are comprised of two main parts: the annulus fibrosus (outer layer) and the nucleus pulposus (inner nucleus material). The annulus fibrosus is comprised of a tough, elastic material that allows the disc to compress and bend with everyday movements of the spine. Similarly, the nucleus pulposus is a gel-like material that gives each disc fluidity to move without breaking.

While these two components of the disc allow the disc flexibility during daily movements, sometimes the outer layer of the disc can wear down or the inner nucleus material can compress aggressively and cause an annular tear to develop.

Symptoms of an annular tear

When the outer layer of a spinal disc develops an annular tear, torn disc material or escaped nucleus material can compress a nearby nerve root in the spinal canal or the spinal cord itself. When this happens, the following symptoms can develop:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Burning sensation
  • Sharp pain with movements
  • Muscle weakness

Sometimes, an annular tear can go unnoticed and heal on its own. However, if you begin to experience pain and discomfort, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

Diagnosing an annular tear

Before you can begin treatment for your pain, you must receive an accurate diagnosis for the cause of your symptoms.

To test for an annular tear, your doctor will ask you a series of questions about your pain and symptoms, as well as your lifestyle and medical history. These questions are designed to determine the cause of your pain and effective nonsurgical treatment options for you. Some of these questions may include:

  • When did your pain start?
  • In what locations of your body do you feel the pain?
  • Do certain movements help or worsen your symptoms?
  • Is there a history of spine conditions in your family?

After the question part of the exam, your doctor will perform a physical evaluation to test your symptoms and your range of motion. For many patients, an additional imaging test like an MRI or CT scan will be ordered to give an accurate view of your spine and what is causing your discomfort.

Once a diagnosis for an annular tear is made, your doctor can recommend a treatment plan to help you find pain relief.

Conservative treatments for an annular tear

For many patients with an annular tear, conservative treatments will be the first recommendation to find pain relief. Conservative treatments serve to relieve the pain of a pinched nerve through two methods: releasing pressure on the nerve and blocking the nerve from sending pain signals to the brain.

Many physicians may recommend a combination of the following common conservative treatments:

  • Pain medication
  • Limited rest
  • Lifestyle changes, i.e. weight loss, quit smoking
  • Physical therapy
  • Stretches and yoga
  • Low-impact exercises
  • Corticosteroid injections

Some patients may want to explore alternative methods of treatment in addition to or in place of conservative treatments. Be sure to consult your doctor before beginning any treatments for your pain. Common alternative treatments for pain include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Chiropractic care
  • Herbal medication
  • Massage therapy
  • Acupressure

Conservative and alternative treatments often take several weeks or months before lasting pain relief can be experienced. During this time, the damaged disc in your spine can heal through the natural resorption process — the process during which the body absorbs the leaking disc material and begins to heal the annular tear.

However, some patients may not find relief from these treatments and require more advanced procedures for pain relief. In these situations, spine surgery is often recommended to treat the damaged disc.

Surgery for an annular tear

If surgery is recommended for an annular tear, research the alternatives to traditional open neck or back surgery. The minimally invasive spine surgery at Laser Spine Institute helps treat annular tears and other spine conditions without the increased risks and complications associated with traditional open back surgery.

In fact, because of the small incision and muscle-sparing techniques used during our minimally invasive procedures, patients can experience a shorter recovery time^ and lower risk of complication than patients who have traditional open spine surgery.

A minimally invasive discectomy to treat an annular tear involves the following steps:

  • Using a small incision in the neck or back — often less than 1-inch
  • Removal of a portion of the damaged disc
  • Possible removal of the entire disc if it is damaged beyond repair
  • Closing the incision

To find out if you are a candidate for our minimally invasive procedures that can treat an annular tear, contact Laser Spine Institute. We can provide a no-cost MRI review* to help you make a confident decision about your treatment options.