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Spinal Health Part One

The spine and why it is important.

Strange though it sounds I bet not many of us think about the health of our spine until something lets us know that things are not quite right.  However, it is highly likely that if you sit down for long periods of time or spend a lot of time looking at your phone with your hands in your lap that things are already on the road to being not quite right and, if not cared for, could become royally f*cked up!

When we hear phrases like ‘the backbone of the country’ or the ‘backbone of the company’ it symbolises strength, stability; something that holds stuff together. 

That is exactly how we should think of our own backbone; a fundamental, critical link in everything we do, supporting everything we do.  If your back is not in great shape the impact on your health, mobility, stability, exercise, wellbeing and life can be immense.

Five parts of the spinal chain

A good way to visualise the spine is as a chain made up of five key parts.  As with all chains if one of the links is broken or damaged or unhealthy it will affect everything around, above and below that part.  Potentially from the top of your head to the tips of your toes.

Starting from the top we have:

  1. Cervical – right at the top the vertebrae of the neck are the most delicate yet support the most important thing to us, our heads. These seven small, thin bony rings, referred to as C1 to C7, are highly mobile allowing us to rotate our head and neck and tilt it forwards and backwards and side to side.  They are also the first to form a protective cage around our spinal cord; the high-speed internet cable for our bodies.
  2. Thoracic – sitting directly below the cervical vertebrae is the daddy, the trunk, the linchpin, made up of twelve small bones, T1 to T12. This highly important area supports our ribs and the weight of the upper body, and it has a fundamental part in everything connected to it; neck, shoulders and lumbar spine.  It should be mobile and allow a range of movement including rotation, flexion and extension both forwards and backwards and side to side.
  3. Lumbar – L1 to L5 form this final section of vertebrae and the carry all the upper body’s weight. Whilst they provide a good amount of flexibility and movement the lumbar should also provide plenty of stability and form the ‘small’ of the back, that lovely concave curvature of the lower back.
  4. Sacral – I feel a little sorry for the sacrum as it gets little attention but plays a hugely important role in keeping us together, literally connecting our top and bottom halves via the hips! This wedge-shaped vertebra is the supporting foundation of the aforementioned three parts of the spine and is the wedge is formed of five individual vertebrae which start to fuse together as we mature into adulthood. 
  5. Coccyx – essentially a vestigial tailbone from back in the day but remains as an anchor point for muscles in the pelvic region and bears the body’s weight when sitting. I am sure we would all agree it hurts like f*ck if you fall on it!
 Entire Spine

What happens when…

…it all goes wrong.  Luckily this is something I know all too well from personal experience so can tell you!  The spine is a wonderful and complex thing made up from many parts other than five main areas above.  It has a natural curvature to it due to the way it is built and held in place by the muscles and intervertebral discs between each bone. 

If this natural curvature goes out of alignment it can start putting pressure on all the connecting parts. This may be subtle in nature, to begin with, and our body, specifically the brain, will make necessary adaptations to enable us to carry on; the brain is good and efficient at doing this and will keep doing it automatically for you.  Maybe an ache here or a twinge there and nothing a couple of painkillers or a little massage or physiotherapy can’t cope with and the brain makes further adaptations muscularly and in neural pathways.  We shake it off and carry on.

Sadly, though over time chronic posture, even adapted postures (sitting) will become chronic aches until the discs or muscles can adapt no more.  Muscles long an loose and lose their tone so provide an ever-present ache and, worse case, a disc could bulge/herniate/slip/rupture leading to acute symptoms.

In my case, the disc in my lumbar spine between L3 and L4 bulged.  It was slight but there is not much room to move between discs and bones and the nerves got squished.  I couldn’t walk, my left leg was numb and putting on socks and shoes was pretty much impossible.  Thankfully the doctor refused to operate and was blunt in saying I needed to lose weight and strength my back and trunk.  I saw physiotherapist, sports massage therapists and then decided that only one thing was going to help... regular good movement, building a strong trunk and losing weight.

Funny what happens to kick you into action, I just wish I knew then what I know now.  If you’ve read this and do now know and have even the slightest twinges in your back it is time to start taking care of it and it doesn’t take a huge effort to do begin doing that.

Take care,

Andrew