Annular Fissure: Spinal Pain of Intervertebral Discs

An Injury That Can Affect the Neck, Back, and Spinal Column

Annular fissure

What is an Annular Fissure?

An annular fissure is a condition that affects intervertebral discs. Most of the time a fissure is caused by degenerative changes in the spine, including age-related drying out of the discs, but it can also be brought about by trauma.

In an annular fissure the outer part of the disc, which is made of strong fibers arranged in concentric layers, begin to fray, break or separate from the bone to which they are attached. 

Is an annular fissure the same as an annular tear?

Sort of. The terms fissure and tear are sometimes used interchangeably. However, an annular tear is typically the result of trauma to the spine, whereas a fissure is a wear-and-tear injury.

Does Annular Fissure Cause Pain?

While an annular fissure may cause pain, it doesn’t always do so. In fact, a study was done by Brinjiki, published in the April 2015 issue of the American Journal of Neuroradiology found that degeneration could be seen in a “high proportion” of spinal MRIs of people who did not report symptoms. The researchers also found that the older the patient was, the more that degenerative spinal changes were evident in their films.

You might think of an annular fissure as loss of integrity in the outer covering of the spinal disc. It’s not a herniation, but it may lead to one of the inner contents of the disc move through the gap made by the separation of fibers, and begin to press on a nearby spinal nerve root. In this case, you may feel pain, pins, and needles, electrical sensations or experience weakness or numbness going down one leg (often referred to as sciatica) or down one arm.

Annular Fissure Diagnostic Procedures

Getting an annular fissure diagnosed involves a medical history, physical examination, and diagnostic tests. (Your healthcare provider may prescribe pain medication and physical therapy before trying the tests) 

As far as these tests go, they may include an X-ray, MRI, CT scan and/or discography, including provocation discography where a contrast dye is injected to purposely elicit your pain. If you feel pain in the area where the dye is injected, your healthcare provider may confirm an annular fissure After your provocative discography, there may be other tests to further hone and describe the affected area.

Treatment for Annular Fissure

Bao-Gan Peng reports in his article for the 2013 issue of the World Journal of Orthopedics, entitled "Pathophysiology, diagnosis, and treatment of discogenic low back pain," that there’s little consensus among healthcare providers and therapists as to the best way to treat a fissure.

Some healthcare providers routinely prescribe pain medications and muscle relaxers, although, the author says, “the evidence for their efficacy is not compelling.” He says that while conservative treatments such as physical therapy, spinal manipulation (generally a chiropractic adjustment) and back school are used a lot, research has not determined if these therapies are useful for long term abatement of symptoms. For low back fissures, he does report on studies that found the McKenzie method (basically a clinical exercise program developed by a physical therapist that has been used all over the world for decades) is slightly more effective than an adjustment of the lumbar spine and equal to low back strengthening exercises.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How is an annular fissure treated?

    An annular fissure of the spinal disks is typically treated with physical therapy and medication to relieve pain. Spinal manipulation by a chiropractor or osteopath is sometimes used to treat an annular fissure. 

    If these measures fail to bring relief, your healthcare provider may suggest a steroid injection in the injured disk. In some cases, disk replacement surgery is needed.

  • Does an annular fissure need surgery?

    Possibly, but only after more conservative treatments have failed. An annular tear on its own is not an indication for disk replacement surgery. However, if degenerative changes to the disk are severe, surgery is often needed to relieve the pain and restore mobility.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Brinjiki, W., Luetmer, P.H., Comstock, B. Bresnahan, B.W., Chen, L.E. Deyo, R.A., Halabi, S., Turner, J.A., Avins, A.L., James, K., Wald, J.T., Kallmes, D.F., Jarvik, J.G. Systematic literature review of imaging features of spinal degeneration in asymptomatic populations.AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2015 Apr;36(4):811-6. doi: 10.3174/ajnr.A4173.

  2. Bao-Gan Peng. Pathophysiology, diagnosis, and treatment of discogenic low back pain. World J Orthop. 2013 Apr 18; 4(2): 42–52.

  3. Yue JJ, Telles C, Schlösser TP, Hermenau S, Ramachandran R, Long WD. Do presence and location of annular tear influence clinical outcome after lumbar total disc arthroplasty? A prospective 1-year follow-up studyInt J Spine Surg. 2012;6:13-7. doi:10.1016/j.ijsp.2011.09.001

Additional Reading
  • Amrani, J. Disc Tear (Annular Tear) Spine Doctor website. Accessed Dec 2015.

By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.