We studied 135 lumbar discs from 27 spines removed post-mortem from subjects of an average age of 31.5 years. Defects of the annulus fibrosus were classified as peripheral, circumferential or radiating; the nucleus pulposus as normal, moderately or severely degenerate. Peripheral tears were more frequent in the anterior annulus, except in the L5-S1 disc. Circumferential tears were equally distributed between the anterior and the posterior annulus. Almost all the radiating tears were in the posterior annulus, and closely related to the presence of severe nuclear degeneration. Histology suggested that peripheral tears were due to trauma rather than biochemical degradation, and that they developed independently of nuclear degeneration. The association of peripheral annular lesions with low back pain is uncertain but our study suggests that they may have a role in the pathogenesis of discogenic pain.