Diagnosing an Annular Tear

What is an Annular Tear?

Many patients who receive an annular tear diagnosis do so after going to their doctor with neck or back pain. An annular tear occurs when the outer layer of a spinal disc — called the annulus fibrosus — becomes torn. There are many causes for this, including injury and aging. While this does not always result in pain, symptoms requiring diagnosis occur if displaced disc material interferes with a spinal nerve.

The following information on how a physician arrives at a diagnosis for an annular tear can be helpful. Patient education is an important part of the care process; this knowledge can help you make the best decision.

What to Expect

Diagnostic techniques vary from physician to physician. Here are the steps most physicians take before reaching an accurate diagnosis:

  • Review of medical records – The initial step is for the physician to carefully review the patient’s medical records and history. This can determine if a pre-existing condition or genetic predisposition could be responsible for the patient’s neck or back symptoms. The review can also identify activities or previous injuries that could explain advanced degenerative spine conditions.
  • Physical examination – After the review, the physician should conduct a physical examination in which they closely examine the patient’s neck and back, supporting musculature and joints. During the examination, the patient should prepare to describe any symptoms they experience and their severity and explain any daily activities that could have led to an injury. Physicians pay close attention to posture and spinal alignment and palpate the spine by pressing their hands against your neck and backbone. A physician should also perform neurologic tests.
  • Medical imagery – Doctors often refer patients to an imaging center for an MRI, CT scan,or X-ray. These tests are usually required to identify the precise location of the annular tear and determine whether any other underlying condition exists.

After the Diagnosis is Confirmed…

The first step in treatment is usually a physician-prescribed plan of conservative treatment. This includes pain medication, physical therapy, light exercise, and rest. Doctors and patients view open neck or back surgery as a last-resort treatment for conditions like an annular tear. This is because traditional open spine procedures are highly invasive, requiring a large muscle-tearing incision and a long recuperation. 

If you have received an annular tear diagnosis, contact BEST Health System to learn about our minimally invasive outpatient spine surgery. These procedures use small incisions to access the spine, resulting in a shorter recovery time and less scarring for our patients.