Why do annular tears hurt so much?

Annular tears are seen on MRI scans of the lumbar spine.  They appear as tiny white dots in the back of the disk.  The radiologist will call annular tears “posterior high intensity zone lesions.”  In addition to severe low back pain, they are a source of confusion, concern, and unanswered questions about their significance and treatment.

Here is a short video where I review the MRI scan of someone with an annular tear of the L5-S1 disc

Here is a short description of his symptoms in his own words:

  • prior to August 2016 I was doing a lot of recreational running

  • At the end of July 2016 I fell while biking, felt a sharp pain immediate after fall but everything seemed OK after two days.

  • early Dec 2016, moved a piece of furniture and felt sharp pain in back – obviously this caused severe injury of the disc

  • mid Dec 2016 – got my MRI scan

  • end Dec 2016 – new sharp pain bottom of pelvis. Obviously I re-injured the disk again and made things worse. Back pain lasted for 2-3 weeks before slowly improving.

  • Jan 2017 – back pain started to improve and I was able to do some back pain excercises

  • beginning Feb 2017 – started to feel numbness (I assume it was because I took a business trip, more sitting, traveling with bag, airports… that caused things worse)

  • last 7 days I was very careful and things have improved slowly.  my tensor latae fasciae spasm continues.  I cannot run.

  • Through all this time I felt almost no leg pain. I had some occasional pain in the toes which I was not sure if originates from spine (not severe, one day episodes). Numbness scared me but it was not very severe.

What I ask myself all the time is:

  • I can hear popping in my back with certain moves (for example changing position while sleeping from one hip to another or with some leg movements). Does this come from the disc tear or herniation? It is painless.  I have feeling it comes from the back.

  • What is my prognosis? As most people would, I would like to avoid surgery but do not want to make things worse. I have no problems with pain at the moment but would like to return to some sport activities in the future. I learned that healing should take at least 6 months. Is this possible without surgery in my case?

  • What would be your recommendation in my case?

And here is his MRI scan

In this patient’s case, I recommend that he continue with non-operative care.  His pain has already started to decrease and he is still active.  We would reasonably expect that with time this should heald and he should feel like he has a normal spine.

Here are some other examples of MRI scans of the spine with an annular tear

In this first example of an annular tear in the L4-5 disk in a 22 year old female, there is a tiny white dot in the back of the disk where the fibers of the annulus are torn.

annular tear L4.5

In this second example, in the L5/S1 disk, the annular tear is centrally located and is more apparent on the axial view.  These are T2 sequences, and the computer algorithm that creates the T2 images from the raw MRI scan data makes fluid look bright white.  You will notice that the cerebrospinal fluid appears bright white.  CSF is a filtrate of plasma.  Since the CSF appears white, we conclude that the annular tear is probably a gap in the fibers of the annulus fibrosis that is fluid filled.

Most patients with annular tears have similar histories.  They report that they were lifting a heavy object, moving awkwardly, or twisting at the same time.  Suddenly they felt like they were shot or stabbed in the back.  They are often in a tremendous amount of pain.  Since they do not have a large disk herniation on the MRI scan, these patients are often described as having “pain out of proportion to expectations”.  This is a little unfair because in my experience, annular tears seem to be very slow to heal and they can be a cause of long lasting and disabling back pain.

Why?

I believe that annular tears represent a partial disk herniation.  The annulus fibrosis that surrounds the intervertebral disk is made up of many layers.  When an annular tear occurs, the central portion of the disk, the nucleus pulposus, herniates through most, but not all of the layers of the annulus.  A fragment of disk material is stuck in the middle of the tear and it is surrounded by fluid and inflammation.

The nucleus of the intervertebral disk is made of a protein core consisting of proteoglycans.  These long, branched proteins are relatively acidic, viscous, and naturally slippery.  As such, they are designed to prevent adhesions and scar tissue formation since they are natural shock absorbers.  When they get trapped in between the fibers of the annulus, they prevent the collagen fibers in the annulus from healing.  As a result, there is a permanent weak spot in the fibers of the annulus which is a constant source of pain.

Whats the best treatment for annular tears?

A number of times in my surgical career I have operated on patients with broad based disk bulges, an annular tear, and both back and leg pain.  When I make a small incision in the outer covering of the disk, a fragment of disk material squeezes out as if it were under pressure.  Typically, there is a small cavity where the annular tear is located that is filled with fragments of disk material.  The patient’s leg pain gets better after the operation because of the microsurgical decompression.  Interestingly, the patient’s back pain improves rapidly after the operation because without the fragment of the disk stuck in the tear the annulus can finally heal.

I’ve arrived at the conclusion that for some patients with relentless back pain related to an annular tear it makes more sense to have a microsurgical decompression with an exploration of the annular tear and a removal of the fragment of the disk that is just underneath the surface.  This seems to kick start the healing process and let them get on with their lives faster. My favorite technique for treating annular tears is now an endoscopic technique. Here is a video of how I do that operation:

Other patients, however, will get better with non-operative treatment.  With time, and and a gradual return to normal activities, their back starts to settle down and they have less and less pain.

The other option is an injection into the disk space of either platelet rich plasma or adipose derived stem cells.  There is good evidence to suggest that PRP injections are effective in shortening the time that annular tears hurt.  Stem cell injections are also a really exciting area of active clinical research and there is some early evidence to suggest that stem cells injected directly into the disc may help.  At the moment, the best evidence suggests that either a microscopic decompression with a removal of the trapped fragments or a platelet rich plasma injection is the best treatment if non operative treatment simply isn’t working.

What kind of options do you have if you have an annular tear?

Many annular tears will get better with non operative treatment, but some don’t.  If you’ve had pain for more then 6 weeks and you have already had an MRI scan of the spine, I can review your MRI scan for you and tell you what options you have.   To get started with this process click here: MRI review service

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Sohrab Gollogly, MD is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and Fellowship-trained spine surgeon who also performs scientific research and participates in several volunteer surgical organizations.

Dr. Gollogly completed his undergraduate education in biology at Reed College in Portland, Ore. He earned his medical degree from the University of Washington School of Medicine.

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