All of the body’s organs and systems, including the spinal column, sustain degenerative changes over time. In the spine, intervertebral discs typically lose moisture, which causes the weakening of the disc’s annulus fibrosus and the stiffening of its nucleus pulposus. As such, aging-related changes increase the likelihood of disc injury, including annular tear.
When the tough exterior wall of an intervertebral disc (called the annulus fibrosus) rips, the resulting condition is called an annular tear. Such tears typically occur along the outer edge of a disc, between the layers of the annulus fibrosus, but can also start near the center of the disc and extend all the way to the outside. The extent and positioning of the tear will typically govern the level of pain experienced, which can range from non-existent to excruciating.
By definition, any condition that causes a part of the body to diminish in function over time is a degenerative change. With the aging process, intervertebral discs desiccate and weaken. Because the neck and back are responsible for supporting the majority of a person’s weight, they are particularly susceptible to increased wear. A desiccated, aging intervertebral disc may respond by forming an annular tear. An annular tear may also be caused by traumatic injury. A sudden blow or force — from high-impact sports, for instance — can apply excessive pressure to the annulus fibrosus, causing an intervertebral disc to rip.
Whether an annular tear is caused by the aging process or a sudden injury, several treatment options are available to provide patients with relief from the pain that often accompanies this condition. Patients should contact their back specialist or primary care physician if an annular tear is suspected.