The intervertebral discs make up one fourth of the spinal column’s length. There are no discs between the Atlas (C1), Axis (C2), and Coccyx. Discs are not vascular and therefore depend on the end plates to diffuse needed nutrients. The cartilaginous layers of the end plates anchor the discs in place.
The intervertebral discs are fibrocartilaginous cushions serving as the spine’s shock absorbing system, which protect the vertebrae, brain, and other structures (i.e. nerves). The discs allow some vertebral motion: extension and flexion. Individual disc movement is very limited – however considerable motion is possible when several discs combine forces.
Annulus Fibrosus and Nucleus Pulposus
Intervertebral discs are composed of an annulus fibrosus and a nucleus pulposus.
The annulus fibrosus is a strong radial tire–like structure made up of lamellae; concentric sheets of collagen fibers connected to the vertebral end plates. The sheets are orientated at various angles. The annulus fibrosus encloses the nucleus pulposus.
Although both the annulus fibrosus and nucleus pulposus are composed of water, collagen, and proteoglycans (PGs), the amount of fluid (water and PGs) is greatest in the nucleus pulposus. PG molecules are important because they attract and retain water. The nucleus pulposus contains a hydrated gel–like matter that resists compression. The amount of water in the nucleus varies throughout the day depending on activity.