The Cause | The Flavors | Healing |
Annular Disc Tears:
are three main types of annular tears (aka: annular fissures) that occur in the human disc:
I have created a webpage for each one of these tears which can be further explored by simply clicking on the above links.
Like most other injuries, the body will attempt to heal the annular tear by filling in the gap with scar tissue. depending on the amount of degeneration within the disc, anecdotally, healing times can be 18 months or even more. New blood vessels will grow from the periphery of the disc down toward the nucleus through the annular tear (it is these blood vessels in part that supplied the building blocks needed for the scar tissue to form). Unfortunately, pain-carrying new nerve fiber acompany the blood vessels down into the center of the disc! This is not a good thing, because now has a higher capacity to generate pain because it has more pain-carrying nerve fiber within it. This phenomenon, as well as a similar phenomenon which may occur vertebral endplate, is most likely the reason why patients with annular tears often suffer bouts of pain throughout their lives..
HOW DO WE KNOW IF WE HAVE AN ANNULAR TEAR OR NOT? DISCOGRAPHY
The only way to know for sure whether or not a disc has suffered an annular tear is by a test called discography. Basically it is a procedure where a specialist injects dye (contrast) into this nucleus pulposus (center) of the disc and then pressurizes the disc in order to see if this pressurization re-creates the patient's usual and customary pain. If it does, the disc is said to be concordantly positive (i.e. that disc is generating "discogenic pain"). In order to further validate this finding, lidocaine (a powerful anesthetic) may be injected into the disc to see if the pain will now disappear--the theory being that the lidocaine numbs the inflamed sinuvertebral nerves, which in turn takes away the pain. Then, the disc above or below (assuming it is not a suspect for annular tear) is tested in the same manner in hopes of finding that disc to be non-painful (i.e., a control disc). While all this is happening, the patient is blinded to what is going on (i.e., the doctor does not tell the patient which disc he's injecting and what to expect).
Ideally, a CT scan should be performed after discography is completed in order to qualify the "flavor" of annular tear and whether or not that tear was leaking contrast material into the epidural space. *If it was discovered that you have a grade 4 or grade 5 leaking annular tear, then it is possible that the disc tested negative but truly was a pain generator. This is because if the disc leaks, it will not hold as much pressure and therefore the procedure will not be as irritative to the annular tear and the surrounding pain-carrying nerve fibers.
Many surgeons (and insurance companies) rely heavily on discography as an indicator of whether or not a fusion surgery for discogenic pain will be effective. Only the most experienced physicians should perform discography, for it is an art. There is also controversy about how much pressure should be utilized during the procedure. Many authorities say the disc should not be pressurized greater than 50 PSI; however, it is common practice for discographer to exceed 100 PSI looking for that painful disc.
DANGERS OF DISCOGRAPHY:
As many of us predicted from the sheep studies of the 1990s, punching a hole in the disc with the needle (or a tear from rotational trauma for that matter [i.e., a rim lesion]), does not bode well for the future of that disc. More specifically, any puncturing or evening pricking through the substance of the disc will biomechanically doom that disc to degenerative change and increase that disc's chance for herniation and becoming painful.
A LITTLE MORE TECHNICAL DESCRIPTION:
As we will learn in detail below, annular tears are not always seen on MRI, and never seen on x-ray. The best way to visualize annular tears is on CT Discography. A discogram is performed by injecting contract material into the center of the disc, and then watching to see if the dye leaks from that center along a radial tear. Figure #1 and #2 are examples of CT Discography. In Fig. #1 the injected dye (black) does not leak out of the nucleus. This is normal. Fig.#2 demonstrates a massive Grade 4 radial disc tear. Note how the contrast (black) has leaked out from the center of the disc through a massive complete radial tear. (See the Discography page for more information.)
The other, less invasive way, to confirm the presents of an annular disc tear is by MRI. High Intensity Zones (HIZ) are very effective at predicting the presents of a grade 4 radial annular tear. Research agrees that HIZ (High Intensity Zone) is fairly accurate at predicting the presents of an underlying annular tear. However a huge debate still rages as to whether or not this HIZ sign is predictive of that disc being a cause of the patients back pain. In Figure. # 3, My T2 weighted MRI is a prime example of an HIZ (white arrow). Also note another type of tear (black arrow) that Bogduk calls an LIZ (Low Intensity Zone). To increase the chances of seeing a true annular tear on MRI, contrast (gadolinium) may be added. Researchers have noted that gadolinium will 'light-up' full thickness tears because the contrast will accumulate in the vascular granulation tissue with that tear (32). (read the whole story on HIZ Here.) HIZ are thought to represent a combination tear; a compete radial tear, that has joined either a concentric tear or a rim lesion. (I will explain this much more in depth Here)
Researchers have long known about ‘tear formation’ within the intervertebral disc. These discal tears were first noted by Schmorl and Junghanns back in 1932. By 1952, two of the three types of annular tear were thoroughly described by Hirsch and Schajowicz (1). They described ‘Concentric Tears’, as crescentic or oval cavities filled with fluid or mucoid material between lamellae of the annulus, which were the result of ruptures of the short transverse fibers of the lamellae, which hold the annular lamellae together. They also described ‘Radial Tears’ as fissures extending from the surface of the annulus to the nucleus. The third type of annular tear was first described by 'Schmorl & Junghans' in 1971(2). They described ‘Transverse annular tears’ (aka: rim lesions) as tears in the very outer fibers of the disc (Sharpey’s Fibers) near the insertion into the ring apophysis. These fibers occurred in a horizontal pain, parallel to the end-plate.
Since these initial descriptions we have learned a lot more about annular tears as they have been extensively studied both microscopically and macroscopically. Famed researcher Barrie Vernon-Roberts, who has devoted over 25 years to the investigation of annular tears and disc degeneration, has published several papers on the subject in 1977, 1990, 1992, and final in 1997. To date his 1992 paper entitled “Annular Tears & Disc Degeneration in the Lumbar Spine” yields one of the best descriptions of the three types of annular disc lesions yet written. I will use his research frequently through out this page. (3)
There is one common misconception about annular tears that continues to circulate: It was the theory of another famous researcher and author, William H. Kirkaldy-Willis that erroneously states that annular lesions are all related to one another. that is, radial tears are born from initial annular tears within the outer regions of the annulus--i.e., rim lesions and/or concentric tears--and "coalesce" or work their way inward toward the nucleus finally resulting in a painful radial tear (4). However, in 1990, Osti & Vernon-Roberts (who won the 1990 Volvo Award in Experimental Studies for this study) shot major holes in Willis's theory by discovering conclusively that the three types of annular tears were indeed “separate pathologies." More explicitly, the team demonstrated that radial annular tears begin as ‘clefts’ within a degenerated nucleus pulposus and work their way outward toward the periphery and NOT inward from the periphery (5, 6). Although the sheep studies of the 1990's do support the idea an induced rim lesion will ultimately work their way into the center of the disc and give rise to concentric tears, there is no evidence that the deadly radical tears begin in the periphery.
Let us now dive deeper into each of the three types of annular disc tears.
1) Hirsch C, Schajowicz F, Acta Orthop Scand 1952;22:184-223
2) Schmorl G, Junghans H, “The human spine in health & disease”. New York: Grune & Stratton, 1971
3) Osti OL, Vernon-Roberts B, et al. “Annular Tears & Disc Degeneration” J Bone Joint Surg [Br] 1992; 74-B:678-82
4) Kirkaldy-Willis WH, “The pathology & pathogenesis of low back pain. Managing Low back pain” New York, Churchill-Livingstone, 1983; pp 23-43
5) Osti OL, et al “Volvo Award- Anulus Tears & Intervertebral Disc Degeneration" – Spine 1990; 15(8):762-766
6) Vernon-Robert B, et al. “Pathogenesis of Tears of the Anulus”, - Spine 1997; 22(22):2641-46
31) Freemont AJ, et al. “nerve in-growth into the diseased IVD in chronic back pain.” – Lancet 1997; 350:178-181
32) Ross JS, Modic MT, Masaryk TJ, AJR Am J Roentgenol. 1990 Jan;154(1):159-62
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