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What do the words mean?

What do the words mean?


You’ve found a surgeon and are ready for the big day. You’ve heard words and phrases that sound like a whole new language that you are expected to understand. It makes a nerve racking time more stressful and you are afraid you are missing something.

Let’s talk….

The medical world has its own language and if you have ever sat at a lunch table with more than one medical person you can become disoriented with all the unfamiliar initials, words and phrases that come up. For the sake of Spine Surgery, we will just define the words you have heard since you started looking into your injury.

Annulus – this is the rubber like outer covering around each disc. It is very strong, but with age there is increased wear and tear. Trauma can also cause a tear. The tear in the annulus can be a source of pain, but most often the pain is secondary to the piece of disc coming out of the annulus (see disc herniation below).

Disc herniation – this when there is a piece of disc material comes out of the annulus (causes can include trauma, age, and life activities like a sneeze). Most symptoms of this are noted when the herniation pushes out to press on a nerve or on the spinal cord. When removed in surgery, it most closely resembles crab meat. 95% of disc herniations get better over time but once a disc is herniated, disc degeneration can be accelerated.

Radiculopathy – this is pain usually caused by either a bone spur or disc material pressed on a nerve. If your neck is injured, the radicular pain, numbness or tingling would be in the arms or hands. If your low back was injured it would be in your legs and feet. This pain can tell us where the injury is by its distribution. (Left sided disc herniation; left sided pain)

Myelopathy – generally means there is something pressing on the spinal cord (or there was for an extended period in the past). There can be no pain with this, but it is usually associated with weakness. Because it is affecting the spinal cord, the weakness would be bilateral. It is often noticed as “tripping over my own feet”, clumsiness or dropping things without a reason.

MIS – Minimally Invasive Surgery – this is an operation where smaller incisions are used to achieve disk removal or spine stabilization, while preserving the major stabilizing ligaments of the spine. It is usually outpatient and with incisions about an inch long.


Article by Catherine Nicholson based on over 30 years as a Registered Nurse and 15 years as a practice manager in a spine practice.

Last modified: December 11, 2020

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