Why is Your Spine Important?
You may not think much about it – but your spine literally supports your entire body. It is responsible for nearly every major movement that you make during the day. With the need to be strong yet flexible your spine bends, lifts, twists, and turns, while supporting your neck and shaking your head – all in response to your commands. When your spine is in good working order it can keep you moving right along. But when your spine is hurt, injured, or not functioning correctly, the results can be painful, disturbing – even disabling.
Your Spine Controls Your Entire Body
Having a healthy spine is essential to an active life. Without your spine you could not stay upright or even stand up. It provides the core support and structure for your entire body. The spine is also the body’s way of protecting your spinal cord. The all-important spinal cord is a column of nerves that connects your brain with the rest of your body. It allows you to control your movements. Without a spinal cord you would be unable to move your body and your organs would not function.
The Clever Design of Your Spine
It takes 24 small bones, or vertebrae, stacked on top of each other to build the spinal column. A disc lies between each vertebra. This soft, gel-like cushioned disc helps absorb pressure and keeps bones from grinding against each other. Ligaments connect the vertebrae bone-to-bone. Tendons connect muscles to bones and also fasten muscles to vertebrae. Like elbows and knees, your spinal column has real joints called facet joints. The facet joints link vertebrae and add flexibility. The center of each vertebra has a hole. Stacked together, the vertebrae form a hollow tube that protects the spinal cord and 31 pairs of nerve roots. These roots exit the spine through spaces between vertebrae, called neural foramina.
The Aging Spine
The spine is a chain of joints called mobile segments. Each segment is made out of two vertebra, with a disc in between and two facet joints. The disc, or intervertebral disc as it is called, is similar to a car tire. It is made of a thick outer tube called the annulus and a gel cushioned inner tube called the nucleus. Similar to a tire, the disc will wear out. It tends to wear out faster in people who smoke, who do a lot of bending, lifting, twisting, and turning, and those who are involved in a major traumatic accident. A family history of back and neck problems tends to increase the risk of degeneration as well. Once the cushion wears out it can rupture and cause a disc herniation that can pinch a nerve and cause back and leg pain called sciatica. Or it could wear out gradually and over time, with the bone of the vertebrae beginning to rub on each other (bone on bone) which is called arthritis. The onset of arthritis tends to cause back pain and is associated with the formation of bone osteophytes (bone spurs) that tend to gradually grow around the nerves and causing a narrowing of the spinal canal called spinal stenosis. Spinal stenosis can be asymptomatic, or it can be associated with back pain and lower extremity pain. It can also be associated with Spinal Claudication, which is pain in the back or the lower extremities associated with ambulation, and is relieved by sitting down. Patients with spinal stenosis tend to have a positive experience when grocery shopping because using a shopping cart eases pain when leaning and bending over the cart (commonly referred to as “shopping cart sign”). After going through all stages of conservative treatments and failing to improve, the patient may consider surgical intervention as a last resort.