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Annular Tear vs. Herniated Disc

Annular Tear vs. Herniated Disc

Find out the difference between these two common injuries. 

Annular tears and herniated discs—both injuries that involve the vertebrae of the spine—have similar symptoms, so it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between the two. 

The two injuries can be related, but they are two separate conditions. Here’s how you can tell the difference between an annual tear and a herniated disc, and what you can expect from recovery for each.

What Is an Annular Tear?

To explain what an annular tear is, let’s first take a little tour of your spinal column. Your spine is made up of bones called vertebrae and in between each vertebra, there are discs called intervertebral discs. Each intervertebral disc consists of an outside hard shell—called the annulus—and an inside that is filled with fluid. 

An annular tear occurs when there is a tear in that outer shell of the vertebrae. The tears are separations that can vary in size between the fibers or actual breaks in the fibers themselves, and they can affect multiple layers through the annulus.

Although an annular tear can be the result of an injury or trauma to your spine, it’s also thought that an annular tear can occur as a normal result of aging. Symptoms of an annular tear can include: 

  • Pain in the back
  • Pain that radiates down the body
  • Muscle weakness
  • Tingling or numbness in the limbs

In many cases, annular tears will not have any symptoms, so it is very possible that you can have an annular tear and not even realize it.

What is a Herniated Disc?

A herniated disc occurs when the actual intervertebral disc in the spine ruptures or shifts out of place. 

Although a herniated disc is different than annular tear, an annular tear can signal the start of a herniated disc. Once an annular tear occurs, either as a result of aging or injury, the fluid inside of the disc will move and build until it eventually bursts. This may cause the disc to slip out of place, resulting in the herniated disc. A herniated disc can also occur as a result of an injury or strain, normal degeneration of the spine, or a genetic disposition.

Unlike an annular tear, which you may not even feel at first, a herniated disc is usually painful because it pinches the nerves around it.

Symptoms of a herniated disc can include:

  • Back pain
  • Pain, weakness, and numbness that extends down the body (a result of a nerve being compressed)
  • One side of the body being more affected than the other
  • Pain that worsens when straightening one leg
  • Electric “shock-like” pain that shoots down the buttocks and leg
  • Neck pain

How is an Annular Tear Treated?

If you do not have a herniated disc, your doctor will most likely treat your annular tear with a non-steroid anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medication and physical therapy.

Because an annular tear can progress into a herniated disc, it is especially important to consult with a doctor if you are experiencing any symptoms of back pain, or have recently suffered an injury.

How is a Herniated Disc Treated?

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons explains that the majority of people who experience a herniated disc will not require surgery. They note that in most cases, you may notice an improvement of symptoms in a few days to a few weeks. Just like with an annular tear, treatment usually involves NSAIDs and physical therapy. In rare cases, surgery is required.

If you have been diagnosed with an annular tear or a herniated disc, it’s also extremely important that if any of your symptoms get worse, or if you begin to experience other symptoms such as a fever, loss of bladder or bowel control, or difficulty standing or walking, that you call your doctor right away.

Although some mild back pain may be thought of as a “normal” process of living and getting older, it’s always a good idea to stay in touch with your doctor about any recurring or new pain you are experiencing. And although both annular tears and herniated discs can be the result of the normal degenerative processes of aging, staying active, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, lowering your stress levels, and using proper technique when lifting heavy objects can help you avoid serious injury.  

For more information on whether spinal surgery is necessary for your condition, or to make an appointment with the doctors at NeuroMicroSpine, please call (850) 934-7545 or click here to request an appointment. We hope to see you soon!

The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace or counter a physician’s advice or judgment. Please always consult your physician before taking any advice learned here or in any other educational medical material.