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Spine 101: Anatomy and How It Affects Your Health

30 October 2018

There is a reason for the saying “he has no backbone.” Without our spines, we would be very limited as human beings with no core strength or coordination to help us eloquently use our limbs to read, write, dance, run and enjoy life. Knowing some of the spine’s complex anatomy can help us appreciate the importance of back health and why it is one of the keys to a healthy and happy life.

The Basics

Each joint in the body has a unique combination of stability and mobility to optimize human performance and health.  This combination varies slightly in the spine with each level (7 cervical, 12 thoracic, 5 lumbar and 5 fused sacral vertebrate) of the spine, depending on whether its function is more related to movement or support.  In general the neck is designed for movement, the mid-back for protection of the organs with the help of the ribs and the low back for bearing weight while providing strength for movement. 

The Bones and Ligaments

Each vertebrae in the spine has the same general shape.  There is the main “body” that gives each bone its strength in front of a large opening for the spinal cord.  There are then three “processes” that stick out from each side and the back.  These are connection sites for many of the major ligaments and muscles in the body.  The dense network of ligaments and muscles around the spine add to the intricate layers of support and strength that help with overall back health. The only exceptions to this general shape are the top two cervical vertebrae that are made specifically to be able to rotate our heads, making them resemble more of a ring that rotates around a bottom post.

The Joints

There are several different major points of articulation in the spine.  Between each vertebrae is an intervertebral disc that provides cushion and shock absorption for the spine while allowing some movement.  The vertebrae then stack and “lock” into each other via facet joints (one each side).  These stacking joints create the space needed between the vertebrae to allow nerves to exit and enter the spinal cord.  Lastly, in the mid-back are costovertebral joints to connect the spine and ribs. From these joints, the spine forms a strong and healthy base for withstanding whatever forces are thrown at it.  For a more in depth look at anatomy and photos check out this link.

The Spinal Cord

Of course, the spine most importantly houses our spinal cord: the body’s circuit board that sends, receives and helps coordinate messages between the body and brain.  Each level of the spine has intricate pathways that require adequate support and space made by the joints, ligaments, and discs of the back.  The spinal cord and all of its branches in and out of the body are delicate tissues that require the stability of the spine to properly function.

Why Knowledge is Power for Our Health

When all of the spine’s parts are in balance, we as humans can perform optimally and minimize pain not only in the spine but throughout the body.  Knowing the basics of our anatomy helps us appreciate just how important back health is, especially preventatively.  If any part of the spine’s intricate network gets out of balance or alignment, it can result in a whole array of health issues. Low back pain is the most commonly treated joint issue in the U.S. and has been found to be most prevalent in the third decade of life, meaning its never too late to make sure you’re doing what you can to preserve your back health.  Some of the most common issues include osteoarthritis, disc herniation or degeneration, muscle or ligament strain and spinal stenosis (narrowing of the openings).  Not only can these result in acute or chronic pain but they can negatively affect the function of the spinal cord causing weakness, tingling, discoordination or even paralysis.

So What Can I Do for My Back Health?

Keeping all the parts of your spine in optimal alignment with good posture is key.  This means good sleep positioning and good mechanics with daily activities and exercise. One of the biggest issues today is that most people are required to spend a significant part of their day at a desk in postures that put strain on the spine. Allowing a variety of postures throughout the day with tools such as a standing desk or adjustable computer monitor can make a world of difference. Additionally, overall good health practices such as exercise and nutrition will provide good circulation and strength.  For more specific recommendations check out our last blog post related to spine health here.  It easy to get overwhelmed with all of the information out there related to the back, so don’t be afraid to get professional help from someone you trust such as an osteopath, chiropractor or physical therapist.

Back health will maintain a good quality of life no matter how you want to lead it, so be nice to your spine and all its parts!