Love Your Spine by Understanding It Better

by | Apr 17, 2024 | Back Pain, Self Help | 0 comments

Lower back pain is one of the most common chronic pain conditions experienced by over 80% of us at some point in our lives. For some people it is a brief discomfort, for others it can become a long-term often debilitating condition which affects the way they move and can prevent them from doing many day to day activities.

However an overview of the anatomy of the spine can help us to understand why back pain might happen and what we can do to help ourselves. The spine is a fascinating structure that supports and enables movement not just in the back but throughout the body.

Boney Structure

The spine is a boney structure formed from 33 individual bones, the bottom 9 of which are fused to form the sacrum and coccyx and the other 24 are blocky shaped bones with extending protuberances to the sides and back. These fit together in an intricate jigsaw, each stacked one on top of the other.

Looking at the individual bones or vertebrae it’s clear to see how this jigsaw works. Starting from the bottom the vertebrae in the lower back are big chunky bones designed for weight bearing. As you move up through the spine the vertebrae become progressively smaller until you reach the very top where the first and second vertebrae are light delicate bones.

At each level the vertebrae have protuberances that stick out to the sides called transverse processes. The purpose of these is to form tiny joints with the vertebrae directly above and below. These are called facet joints. At the back each vertebra also has a spinous process which is another protruding section of bone that extends down to cover the vertebra below it. All of the spinous processes are also linked together by strong ligaments called the ligamentum nuchae in the neck and the supraspinous ligament in the rest of the spine. Together they support and connect the individual vertebrae and enable them to work in united movement.

The structure and interlocking of the spine means that we can easily rotate and flex or extend our backs. All the time the spine not only helps us to stay upright and move, but it also has another important job which is to protect the spinal cord.

Protecting the Spinal Cord

The spinal cord is an extension of the brain and together these are known as the central nervous system. The spinal cord runs in a channel formed by the hollow centres of the vertebrae.  At each junction between two vertebrae the transverse processes fit together to create other smaller channels. These allow the main nerves to branch off from the spinal cord and travel to the various areas of the body that they enervate. This structure looks a bit like a jumper with many pairs of sleeves.

Don’t Blame Your Discs

Also contained within the spine are the spinal discs. The discs act as shock absorbers between the vertebrae and are found at every level except the top 2 vertebrae in the neck. Here the vertebrae look very different – the second vertebrae or axis has a post-like structure that fits neatly inside the first vertebrae or atlas allowing a pivot movement that means we can turn our head from side to side.

Between the rest of the vertebrae the discs cushion the bones and allow movement. Spinal discs are often likened to jam doughnuts and this helps us to understand their structure and what happens to cause slipped discs.

The outside of the discs, called the annulus fibrosus, is a tough outer casing formed of cartilage. Inside is the softer nucleus pulposus or the jam. Normally discs have plenty of ‘give’ as they are 80% water. However discs can lose water for several reasons and this causes them to become dehydrated and lose their flexibility.

Discs can lose water due to aging, due to gravity, but mainly due to compression. If the tissues that support the spine – the muscles, ligaments and fascia – become tight due to injury or overuse this can create imbalance in the spine. It can also cause the vertebrae to gradually be squeezed together. As this happens the discs are squeezed too until they start to fail. This usually starts as a disc bulge where the inside jam of the disc pushes against part of the outer wall of the disc. Eventually this creates a weakness which can fail causing the jam to be pushed out and press onto a nerve as it exits the spine. This is a disc herniation or prolapse – commonly called a slipped disc even though there is no slipping involved.

Once a disc has failed and presses on a nerve it can cause pain and other symptoms felt along the path of that nerve. Depending on the level in the spine where this happens it can affect different areas of the body. So for example a disc prolapse in the neck can cause numbness, tingling and pain in one or both arms, and in the lower back it can cause similar symptoms in one or both legs, ie sciatica.

Most disc prolapses can sort themselves out after a few uncomfortable weeks of rest and gentle exercise often supplemented in the short-term by muscle relaxants and painkillers. This helps to relax the tissues supporting the back and create enough space for the disc to return to its normal space and position. In a few cases the prolapse doesn’t correct itself and may require surgical intervention.

How to Help Your Spine

When you look at it in detail the spine is a truly amazing structure. Understanding a bit more about how it fits together and functions of the component parts helps to understand what we can do to help our spines.

Movement, stretching and hydration all help to keep your spine flexible and healthy. Lifting heavy weights, sitting with poor posture and body imbalance can create too much strain and compression which can lead to problems.

Self-help myofascial exercises can help as part of the solution. In our Living Pain Free All About Back Class we share more information and helpful exercises for healthier backs.


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