If patient-specific finite element models of the spine could be developed, they would offer enormous opportunities in the diagnosis and management of back problems. Several generic models have been developed in the past, but there has been very little detailed examination of the sensitivity of these models' characteristics to the input parameters. This relationship must be thoroughly understood if representative patient-specific models are to be realized and used with confidence. In particular, the performance of the intervertebral discs are central to any spine model and need detailed investigation first. A generic non-linear model of an intervertebral disc was developed and subjected to compressive, flexion and torsional loading regimes. The effects of both material and geometric non-linearities were investigated for the three loading schemes and the results compared with experimental data. The basic material properties of the fibres, annulus and nucleus were then varied and the effects on the stiffness, annulus bulge and annulus stresses analysed. The results showed that the non-linear geometry assumption had a significant effect on the compression characteristics, whereas the non-linear material option did not. In contrast, the material non-linearity was more important for the flexural and torsional loading schemes. Thus, the inclusion of non-linear material and geometry analysis options in finite element models of intervertebral discs, is necessary to predict in vivo load-deflection characteristics accurately. When the influence of the material properties was examined in detail, it was found that the fibre properties did not have a significant effect on the compressive stiffness of the disc but did affect the flexural and torsional stiffnesses by up to +/-20 per cent. All loading modes were sensitive to the annulus properties with stiffnesses varying by up to +/-16 per cent. The model also revealed that for a particular compressive deformation or flexural or torsional rotation, the disc bulge was not sensitive to any of the material properties over the range of properties considered. The annulus stresses did differ significantly as the material properties were varied (up to 70 per cent under a compressive load and 60 per cent during disc flexion).