How Tears to the Annulus Fibrosus Are Treated

The annulus fibrosus is the strong wrapping that makes up the outside portion of the intervertebral disc. Its job is to contain and protect the soft material located in the center of the disc. This soft center is called the nucleus pulposus. The nucleus pulposus (and the entire intervertebral disc) provides shock absorption for the spine.

Young doctor in radiology clinic office Young doctor examining spinal chord x-ray in radiology clinic office
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The annulus, as it is called for short, consists of several concentric rings of fibrous cartilage oriented on a diagonal angle. Fibers of each separate layer of the annulus run at a right angle to the fibers in the ring next to it. This scaffolding design increases the strength of the annulus fibrosus as a whole, allowing it to fulfill its purpose as a container for the nucleus pulposus.

Annular Tears

One common injury to the annulus is a tear. Tears can be either painful or asymptomatic. Annular tears sometimes lead to bulging or herniated discs, but not always.

Quite often, a tear can be successfully treated without surgery; in other words, physical therapy, exercise, holistic therapies, and medication may be enough to relieve your symptoms.

Most of the time, medical treatments for the intervertebral disc are focused on containing (or clearing away pieces of) the nucleus pulposus.

But scientists and clinicians have been working on ways to strengthen and/or repair the annulus. According to a December 2008 review article by Bron, et. al. published in the European Spine Journal,  regenerative approaches that focus on the integrity of fibers of the annulus themselves may be necessary in order to prevent re-herniation. The authors say that strengthening and repairing the annulus might actually increase the potential of nucleus pulposus repair. Without repair and strengthening, they continue, normal amount of disc pressure (which is necessary for the disc’s main task of shock absorption) cannot be restored.

This new direction is in its infancy, which means while there’s been testing on animals, treatments that work on people are still a long way out. 

The Surgical Approach to Annulus Repair

Suturing, according to Bron, et. al. is designed to contain the nucleus pulposus in a disc replacement surgery. But it doesn't restore lost fibers, nor does it reverse any damage. The researchers say a number of products are already in use during surgery that address some of these issues; just the same, they task future researchers to come up with and perfect even more effective methods.

Annulus Fibrosus Regeneration

Regenerating the fibers of the annulus, by means of tissue engineering, is in some ways, according to Bron, et. al., a better solution than suturing. The problem is, it’s much more difficult for scientists to pull off. The three types of techniques that are in the works are: Generating annulus cells, using gene and bio-active factors to influence extracellular matrix productions, and scaffolding.

Ideally, the researchers say, an annulus regeneration strategy will combine techniques that close the tear and regenerate the tissue at the same time. They also say that gene and bio-active strategies cannot be used as standalone treatments, but rather in combination with scaffolding.

5 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. Tsai T, Cheng C, Chen C, Lai P. Mechanotransduction in intervertebral discs. J Cell Mol Med. 2014;18(12):2351-2360. doi:10.1111/jcmm.12377

  2. Chan BP, Leong KW. Scaffolding in tissue engineering: general approaches and tissue-specific considerationsEur Spine J. 2008;17(S4):467-479. doi:10.1007/s00586-008-0745-3

  3. Polyclinic Rehabilitation Institute. Annular tear or fissure: the great masquerader.

  4. Tendulkar G, Chen T, Ehnert S, Kaps HP, Nüssler AK. Intervertebral disc nucleus repair: hype or hopeIJMS. 2019;20(15):3622. doi:10.3390/ijms20153622

  5. Bron JL, Helder MN, Meisel HJ, Van Royen BJ, Smit TH. Repair, regenerative and supportive therapies of the annulus fibrosus: achievements and challengesEur Spine J. 2009;18(3):301-313. doi:10.1007/s00586-008-0856-x

Additional Reading
  • Bron JL, Helder MN, Meisel HJ, Van Royen BJ, Smit TH. Repair, regenerative and supportive therapies of the annulus fibrosus: achievements and challenges. Eur Spine J. 2009;18(3):301-13. doi:10.1007/s00586-008-0856-x

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