Hardly none of us has escaped occasional back pain. For some it’s the sharp pain of a sudden injury; for others it’s a dull nagging ache that seems to never go away. Injury, misuse and the aging process can lead to spinal problems that cause pain, stiffness, tingling or numbness in your back.
Your Spine – It starts with an “S” to understand what causes spinal problems, you must understand how your spine works. The bones of your spine, called vertebrae, are separated by small shock-absorbing discs. Rather than forming a straight column, they form three curves balanced one above the other. Muscles in your back, abdomen and legs help keep your spine in its natural S-shape. This position distributes your body weight evenly to protect your vertebrae and discs from injury and wear.
Improper posture – such as slouching with your shoulders slumped and your head forward or standing in a swaybacked position puts stress on your spine and causes the vertebrae and discs to move out of the balanced position. Too much forward bending and excessive backward bending can speed the aging process of your vertebrae and discs, leading to ruptured disc, arthritis and instability.
- Your discs have a soft center called the nucleus, surrounded by a series of tough outer rings called the annulus.
- Over time, your discs lose moisture and elasticity, so it’s harder for them to bounce back into place.
- Discs can’t really “slip,” but swelling or years of poor posture can leave them sticking out from between the vertebrae. The vertebrae squeeze the bulging disc and cause pain.
- A bulging disc can become a ruptured or herniated disc. As pressure on the disc builds, the nucleus can tear the annulus and squeeze out and put pressure on the spinal nerve.
Protect you back from premature wear and tear by using correct posture and learning how to prevent back injuries.
Break bad habits such as slouching and bending over your desk or workspace.
Avoid carrying loads that cause you to lean back into a swayback position.
Your back is an intricate network of muscles, ligaments, discs and nerves. It’s a delicate system with a big job. Your back carries most of your body’s weight and supports your spinal column, the main pathway of your nervous system.
The Parts of Your Back
Vertebrae – Small bones called vertebrae form your spine. Your spine supports your head and trunk, makes your body flexible and protects your spinal cord. There are five types of vertebrae:
- Seven small, flexible cervical vertebrae support your skull and neck.
- Your chest cavity is formed by 24 ribs extending from 12 thoracic vertebrae.
- The five lumbar vertebrae are the largest and carry most of your body weight.
- Five fused vertebrae below your lumbar vertebrae from the sacrum.
- Fused vertebrae from the coccyx, or tailbone.
Discs – In between your vertebrae are shock absorbers called discs. Discs have a strong outer casing with a pliable jelly-like substance inside.
Spinal Cord – Your spinal cord, with your brain, forms your central nervous system. It’s about 18 inches long and a half inch thick. It runs through a canal in your vertebrae.
Nerves – About 31 pairs of nerves branch out form your spinal cord and travel throughout your body. These nerves carry commands to your organs and muscles and relay messages about touch, temperature and pain.
Muscles – Some 400 muscles work together to keep your spine steady, maintain your posture and help you move.
Tendons – More than 1,000 tendons connect muscles to your bones
Ligaments – Bands of tissue between your bones support your back and keep it from moving more than it should.
Your Supporting Role
Your back supports you in everything you do. Your role is to support your back by using good posture, exercise and body mechanics to keep it strong, flexible and balanced.
What Makes a Healthy Back?
Your back is your body’s main support. Along with your muscles and joints it allows you to move and carry weight. But your back is also a delicate, finely balanced structure that can be easily injured if not cared for properly. Knowing the basics of back care can make the difference between a healthy back and an aching one.
The Parts of Your Back
Your backbone (or spinal column) is composed of 24 move-able bones called vertebrae. Separating the vertebrae are cushion-like pads, called discs, that absorb shock. Ligaments and muscles support these vertebrae and discs and keep your back properly aligned in three balanced curves. When any of these various parts becomes diseased, injured or weakened, back problems and pain are almost certain to follow.
A Question of Balance
A healthy back is a balanced back when your cervical (neck), thoracic (upper back) and lumbar (lower back) curves are properly aligned. You know your back is aligned properly when your ears, shoulders and hips are “stacked” in a straight line. Flexible “elastic” discs and well conditioned muscles also help protect and align healthy backs.
When Your Back Aches
Understanding how your back works and what can go wrong is the key to taking good care of it. Certain medical conditions can cause back pain. But most backaches come from poor posture and weak supporting muscles.
Poor posture puts too much strain on your spinal column and over time can lead to sudden or chronic back pain. Weak muscles, since they aren’t strong enough to support the spinal column, can contribute to poor posture and back injuries. By using good posture when you sit, stand, lift, recline and move, and by keeping off excess weight and exercising the muscles that support your back, you can help prevent the most common causes of backaches.