Torn disc FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions about spinal disc tears

At Laser Spine Institute, we hear many questions from patients and potential patients about torn discs. To provide some quick, basic information about this condition, we’ve compiled the most frequently asked questions and their answers below.

Q. What is a torn disc?


A. A torn disc describes a tear on the outer layer, or annulus fibrosus, of a spinal disc. The human spine contains 23 of these discs that cushion the vertebrae, allowing them to bend and flex.

Q. What causes a torn disc?


A. A torn disc occurs when the outer shell of a disc rips or tears, which can allow the jelly-like center of the disc to leak out. Each disc wall is made up of layers of intertwined, fibrous tissue. These layers can weaken and break apart, starting a tear that begins inside the disc and works its way outward. As the disc wall gives way, layer by layer, it can eventually reach the outer layer of the disc wall and become a full tear. This process is mainly attributed to aging, as the discs tend to become more dehydrated and less flexible as they get older, making them easier to break open.

Other potential risk factors for a torn disc include trauma to the spine, carrying excess weight, being inactive, smoking, alcohol abuse and repetitive stress, among others.


Q. What are the symptoms?


A. When a disc is torn, the gelatinous material inside the disc irritates the fibers of the exterior shell, causing localized pain. In addition, patients can experience radiating pain, tingling, muscle weakness and numbness far from the location of the affected disc. This is because the damaged disc can put pressure on spinal nerves. Nerve compression can cause pain, weakness or numbness in the arm or hand — from a disc tear in the upper spine — and in the lower body when a torn disc presses on a nerve in the lower spine. Severe cases can even cause difficulty walking due to pressure on the spinal cord in the neck or back.

Q. What are some treatment options?


A. Initial treatment for torn discs is generally conservative in nature. Doctors often recommend that patients try to relieve symptoms with some combination of the following methods:

  • Resting
  • Taking over-the-counter or prescription medications to reduce inflammation and pain
  • Applying heat or ice packs to the site of the disc tear
  • Completing physical therapy sessions
  • Performing specific stretches and light exercise

Q. Will I need surgery?


A. In many cases, surgery isn’t advised for patients with torn discs, but may become an option if symptoms are very severe or don’t improve after exhausting conservative treatments. Laser Spine Institute offers minimally invasive spine surgery that is a safer and effective alternative to traditional open back procedures.^ Our outpatient procedures are performed through a less than 1-inch incision and use muscle-sparing techniques to relieve the symptoms of a torn disc.

To learn more, contact Laser Spine Institute today for a no-cost MRI review* to determine if you may be a candidate for one of our procedures.