BACKGROUND: A laboratory study was conducted, on cadaveric sheep spines to develop an effective procedure for removing as much nucleus as possible from an intervertebral disc with minimal disruption to the annulus. The results of many studies involving removal of nucleus, including chemonucleolysis, using chymopapain, have been published but we are not aware of any previous quantitative studies on procedures for removing as much nucleus as possible from the disc. METHODS: All procedures were performed via a 3 mm trocar. Four procedures were compared: (I) unilateral approach using rongeurs alone, (II) bilateral approach using rongeurs alone, (III) unilateral approach using rongeurs followed by chymopapain and (IV) bilateral approach using rongeurs followed by chymopapain. RESULTS: The percentages of nucleus removed were: (I) 34%, (II) 41%, (III) 52% and (IV) 75%; there were significant differences between the four sets of results according to ANOVA. CONCLUSION: Significantly more nucleus is removed using a bilateral than a unilateral approach; significantly more nucleus is removed if chymopapain is used in addition to rongeurs. A brush is useful in removing strands of nucleus loosened by chymopapain.