Yes, October 16th is the annual day of the Spine. This year, as part of the Bone and Joint Decade’s Action Week, the focus has been placed squarely on “Your Back at Work”. The idea of having a day designated to a cause like this is three-fold:
- Increased awareness of spinal health and spine disorders
- Provide an opportunity for and encouragement to discuss the burdens of spinal issues, and
- Promote an interdisciplinary, collaborative health care approach to better manage these problems.
The “Your Back at Work” initiative builds on Straighten Up and Move. But rather than immediately overload you with spine-related resources, I thought I’d take a step backwards, addressing the fundamental question I find a number of people still seek: What is my Spine?
Your spine is composed of three basic regions: the cervical spine, the thoracic spine, and the lumbar spine. Each region has a number of bones (vertebrae), ligaments, muscles, and discs that are arranged together to make one big, functional unit. Let’s consider each region individually:
- The Cervical Spine — this part of your spine makes up what we usually consider the neck. There are seven vertebrae in the cervical spine, numbered as C1 – C7, with discs between each each level from C3 – C7. The first two vertebrae, C1 and C2, and unique to the others, providing a base and pivot that affords us our great ability to turn and move our heads. Our head (skull) rests at the top of our cervical spine.
- The Thoracic Spine — this part of your spine extends from the base of our neck and upper back to the mid-to-lower back, approximately where your lowest ribs rest. There are twelve vertebrae in the thoracic spine, numbered as T1 – T12, with discs between every level. This part of our spine also provides for attachment of our ribs, also numbered 1 – 12.
- The Lumbar Spine — this part of your spine extends from the base of the ribs to the top of your sacrum (more on this in a minute), approximately where your pelvis and hips are located. There are 5 vertebrae in the lumbar spine, numbered L1 – L5. Your lumbar spine provides the foundation
for attachment of the pelvis and lower limbs (legs).
What about the Sacrum? And the coccyx? These two smaller regions typically are not discussed in the same breath as the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spines. However, they are connected all the same.
The Sacrum is composed of 5 sacral vertebrae, which fuse over time to make the sacrum — singular. This bony region sits between two sloped walls provided by parts of your pelvis (the ilium). Think holidays: the chimney that is just too small for Santa to slide down at Christmas, causing him to get stuck between walls? Santa is like your sacrum, wedged snugly between walls of the pelvis.
The Coccyx, similarly, is made up of three-to-five small vertebrae, which also fuse over time. This bony region sits at the lowest tip of the sacrum, and is commonly referred to as the “tailbone”.
Your spine is curved, mostly in a forward-backwards direction (sagittal plane). The curves seen in the cervical and lumbar spines are termed a lordosis, while the curve in your thoracic spine is a kyphosis. These curves develop during our maturation as children — for example, the curves of the lumbar and cervical spines develop as we begin to walk and lift our heads from the floor, respectively. More or less than normal curvature, to some degree, is simply normal variation between individuals — this is rarely a sign of a significant problem.
Why Should I Care for My Spine?
The spine plays a number of essential roles in human health, but most importantly:
- Housing and protection of the spinal cord. The Spinal cord is a direct extension of neural tissue from the brain — it is imperative that it is physically protected from direct trauma. Nerves also exit the spine at each vertebral level, which makes maintaining available openings for spinal nerves very important.
- Foundation for movement. As we learn more about human movement, and the problems that sometimes come with it, we understand more clearly how the spine relates to other joints in the body — sometimes a spinal problem can mimic problems thought to come from other joints, like hips or shoulders. For example, the issues from the lumbar spine are sometimes associated with hip complaints, issues in the thoracic spine are sometimes associated with shoulder complaints, and issues of the cervical spine are sometimes associated with the arms and hands.
What are the most common problems?
Patients commonly present in one of three ways as it relates to the spine:
- Joint dysfunctions — spinal joints, like the rest of our body’s moveable joints, requires movement and motion to stay healthy.
- Intervertebral Disc Damage — small tears of the discs can create pain, especially if its gel-like centre is released either partially or completely into the spinal canal — this would be considered a bulged or herniated disc.
- Nerve Irritations — local inflammation, muscular or physical compression, and chemical irritation (like a disc herniation) are all examples of how nerves become irritated. This may lead to a painful complaint as well.
That is your only spine!
Nobody gets a spinal transplant, a spinal reconstruction, or a spinal replacement — you only have yours! Take care of your spine by practicing neutral postures, staying active, and seeking professional help for aches and pains of all kinds.
[Chiropractors use]… a manual approach, providing diagnosis, treatment, and preventative care for disorders related to the spine, pelvis, nervous system and joints.” — OCA 2015
Dr. Gilliard is a chiropractor in Burlington, ON — if you have questions, comments, or wish to book an appointment, contact him at your convenience by leaving a comment below, via email at email@example.com, by phone at (905) 634-6000, or in person at Endorphins Health and Wellness Centre..