The intervertebral discs (intervertebral fibrocartilages) are interposed between the adjacent surfaces of the bodies of the vertebræ, from the axis to the sacrum, and form the chief bonds of connection between the vertebræ.
They vary in shape, size, and thickness, in different parts of the vertebral column. In shape and size they correspond with the surfaces of the bodies between which they are placed, except in the cervical region, where they are slightly smaller from side to side than the corresponding bodies. In thickness they vary not only in the different regions of the column, but in different parts of the same fibrocartilage; they are thicker in front than behind in the cervical and lumbar regions, and thus contribute to the anterior convexities of these parts of the column; while they are of nearly uniform thickness in the thoracic region, the anterior concavity of this part of the column being almost entirely owing to the shape of the vertebral bodies. The intervertebral fibrocartilages constitute about one-fourth of the length of the vertebral column, exclusive of the first two vertebræ; but this amount is not equally distributed between the various bones, the cervical and lumbar portions having, in proportion to their length, a much greater amount than the thoracic region, with the result that these parts possess greater pliancy and freedom of movement. The intervertebral fibrocartilages are adherent, by their surfaces, to thin layers of hyaline cartilage which cover the upper and under surfaces of the bodies of the vertebræ; in the lower cervical vertebræ, however, small joints lined by synovial membrane are occasionally present between the upper surfaces of the bodies and the margins of the fibrocartilages on either side. By their circumferences the intervertebral fibrocartilages are closely connected in front to the anterior, and behind to the posterior, longitudinal ligaments. In the thoracic region they are joined laterally, by means of the interarticular ligaments, to the heads of those ribs which articulate with two vertebræ.
Structure of the Intervertebral Fibrocartilages.—Each is composed, at its circumference, of laminæ of fibrous tissue and fibrocartilage, forming the annulus fibrosus;and, at its center, of a soft, pulpy, highly elastic substance, of a yellowish color, which projects considerably above the surrounding level when the disk is divided horizontally. This pulpy substance (nucleus pulposus), especially well-developed in the lumbar region, is the remains of the notochord. The laminæ are arranged concentrically; the outermost consist of ordinary fibrous tissue, the others of white fibrocartilage. The laminæ are not quite vertical in their direction, those near the circumference being curved outward and closely approximated; while those nearest the center curve in the opposite direction, and are somewhat more widely separated. The fibers of which each lamina is composed are directed, for the most part, obliquely from above downward, the fibers of adjacent laminæ passing in opposite directions and varying in every layer; so that the fibers of one layer are directed across those of another, like the limbs of the letter X. This laminar arrangement belongs to about the outer half of each fibrocartilage. The pulpy substance presents no such arrangement, and consists of a fine fibrous matrix, containing angular cells united to form a reticular structure.
The intervertebral fibrocartilages are important shock absorbers. Under pressure the highly elastic nucleus pulposus becomes flatter and broader and pushes the more resistant fibrous laminæ outward in all directions.