Your Three Natural Curves

Your spine is truly a remarkable engineering feat – a column of small bones designed to be strong enough to support the weight of your head and body, yet flexible enough to allow you to walk, sit and dance.  The secret to your spine’s supple strength is in the balance of its curves.

Know Your Curves
The small bones of your spine-called vertebrae-are designed to fit together in an S-shaped column.  This column of curves is balanced so that the weight of your body is evenly distributed throughout your spine.  If these curves get out of balance, the vertebrae are pushed out of line, stressing muscles and discs and causing pain.  Starting from the top, the curves are:

  • The Cervical Curve, made up of seven small flexible vertebrae in your neck that spinesupport your skull, has a slight forward tilt.
  • The Thoracic Curve, the mainstay of the chest cavity, is made of larger more rigid vertebrae.  Twenty-four ribs extend from these long, slender bones.  The thoracic curve has a more prominent backward curvature.
  • The Lumbar Curve, often called the workhorse of the spine, is made of five massive, somewhat flexible vertebrae that carry most of the weight of your body.  The lumbar curve has a forward tilt.

Keep Your Curves
When you keep these curves in balance, you reduce the risk of stress on your vertebrae – stress that can lead to pain and back injury.

A straight back keeps your curves in balance.  Imagine a straight line running from your your ear, past your shoulder to your hip.

A hunched back can stress the lumbar region and put pressure on the discs.

A swayback – too much curve – can stress the muscles and ligaments of the lumbar region.

The two most important things you can do to keep your back in balance are to develop good posture and to do regular exercises to strengthen the muscles that support your spine.

Disc Facts

A quick look at how discs work and what they’re made of can help you understand why they’re sometimes blamed for back problems.

What’s a Disc?  Each vertebra in your spine is separated from it’s neighbor by a cushion of cartilage called a disc.  Discs, in fact, make up one-third of your spine’s height and serve as hydraulic shook absorbers.  The outer ring of the cartilage cushion, called the annulus fibrosa, is dense and layered with crisscrossed fibers, like the covering of a radial tire.  The interior cartilage, the nucleus pulposus, is soft and squishy, like thick jelly.disc

Healthy Discs – are like springs; they compress and release with you back’s movement. They’re flexible spacers between vertebrae, giving the bony parts and tissues of the vertebral joints room to breathe and move.  At night, when your discs are free from the pull of gravity, they soak up nutrients and water from your blood, so you’re usually at your tallest in the morning.

Aging Discs – as you age, your discs lose moisture.  They lose their ability to repair themselves after injury, disease or just plain wear and tear.  As the disc loses moisture, it also loses height, which can put pressure on nerves and affect the way the joints of your vertebrae line up.  The good news is that as the disc center loses moisture and shrinks, less pressure is put on the annulus, so that a disc injury is less likely.

Herniated Discs – a herniated disc is the most severe disc problem, often caused by a sudden injury.  When the disc covering weakens before it’s center has dried out,  the pressure from the center can cause the annulus to crack or rupture and the nucleus pulposa to ooze out.  This protrusion can be mild, or it can cause severe pain, depending on how much of the disc center escapes and whether it presses against a nerve.  Sometimes surgery is the only solution for a herniated disc.

Bulging Discs – rather than what are commonly called “slipped disc,” discs sometimes bulge out from between the vertebrae.  This is especially true in the lower back.  A bulging  disc can irritate a nerve root or ligament, causing pain that tends to come and go.  It can be brought on by bending forward.