Spinal Health and a Brief Tour of Your Spine:
What Everyone Needs to Know
© 2018 Health Realizations, Inc.
Your spine, sometimes called your backbone, has an important job to do every day: it supports your entire body.
One of the most important roles of your spine is to protect your spinal cord, which carries messages from your brain throughout your body.
The spine itself is a series of bones (vertebrae) held together by fibrous bands (ligaments). Specifically, it consists of seven neck vertebrae, 12 middle back vertebrae, and five lower back vertebrae. Below that is the sacrum, which contains five fused vertebrae, and then three small fused vertebrae, known as the tailbone. You may not realize it, but this bony column actually takes up about half of the volume of your torso, from front to back!
What is the Purpose of Your Spine?
Well, it does much more than simply hold you up. Your spine is the structure that your muscles, shoulders and pelvis are attached to, and the muscles are what move the spine through its full range of motion. Your spine also supports your head (all 10-12 pounds of it).
Beyond its supportive role, your spine protects your spinal cord, which is housed in the vertebrae. Millions of messages from your brain are carried through your spinal cord and the nerves that branch off from it, communicating with all of the organs and parts of your body.
Your spine is actually uniquely formed with interlocking joint structures and flexible discs between the vertebrae so that you can have flexibility and mobility without having to worry about damaging your spinal cord (and potentially interfering with your brain's ability to communicate with your entire body).
What are the Symptoms of an Unhealthy Spine?
The most obvious, and common, symptom is pain in your spine or back. According to the American Chiropractic Association, approximately 80-90% of the U.S. population suffers from spinal pain at some point.
Although spinal pain is more common in people who are overweight or obese, smokers, or who lift heavy objects frequently, it can happen to anyone.
Other signs that your spine may not be in top condition are more subtle. A spinal misalignment, for instance, can cause nerve irritation that leads to heartburn, insomnia, lowered immune function or sciatica.
Keeping Your Spine Healthy: The Basics
A healthy spine is necessary to keep you moving and to keep your body functioning optimally. You can protect yours by:
1. Using Proper Posture
This includes while standing or sitting. How do you know if your posture is proper? Stand with your back to a wall. If your shoulders, bottom and back of head are all touching the wall, then your posture is correct.
Meanwhile, when standing keep one foot slightly in front of the other, with your knees slightly bent, to take pressure off your low back. Avoid standing bent forward at the waist for long periods of time, as this deconditions the muscles in your low back, leading to pain.
While you're sitting, avoid rolling your shoulders forward (slouching), and keep your knees slightly higher than your hips with your head up and back straight. Make sure the natural curve in your low back is maintained and supported.
Exercise not only strengthens your spine, making it less prone to injury, it also prompts your body to release endorphins, which block pain signals from reaching your brain. Low-impact exercises such as aerobics, yoga, swimming and walking will increase the strength in your back and help your muscles to function better.
3. Sleep Correctly
Sleeping on your back puts about 50 pounds of pressure on your spine, according to the American Chiropractic Association, so you may want to sleep on your side instead. If you do lie on your back, placing a pillow under your knees will cut the pressure on your spine in half, as will lying on your side with a pillow between your knees.
You may also want to consider getting a new, medium-firm mattress. An old, lumpy or overly soft mattress could be causing you unnecessary pain. Studies show that a medium-firm mattress is best if you have back pain.
Sleeping on your back puts 50 pounds of pressure on your spine, so you may want to try a different sleeping position (especially if you already have spine pain).
4. Keep to a Healthy Weight
If you're overweight, you're straining your back muscles and spine with every move you make. Experts suggest keeping within 10 pounds of your ideal weight to protect your back. Losing weight is especially important if you have a "beer belly," as this puts extra pressure on your muscles, ligaments and tendons in your low back.
5. Be Careful When Lifting, Reaching and Carrying
If you're lifting something heavy, let your legs, not your back, do most of the work. Always avoid twisting while lifting, as twisting is one of the most dangerous movements for your spine (particularly when lifting something heavy).
When reaching for something above shoulder level, use a stool so you don't strain your spine. Also avoid bending over at the waist to pick up items from the floor. Instead, kneel down on one knee to pick up the item. When you're carrying something heavy, be sure to hold it as close to your body as possible, and if possible break the load up into two smaller items (one in each hand) instead of one larger one.
Stretch Your Way to a Healthier Spine
If you have spine pain -- or if you simply want to keep your spine healthy -- you are doing yourself an extreme disservice by not stretching.
As with exercise, proper form in stretching has everything to do with achieving the maximum health benefits (and avoiding personal injury.)
Most effective is to have a range of motion assessment to maximize your exercises and stretching reducing a risk of injury.
6. Stretch Regularly
Stretching helps to reduce tension in your muscles, improve flexibility and range of motion, and may slow the degeneration of your joints. The act of stretching alone will also improve your blood circulation and help you to relax -- a key to back pain relief.
To learn how to do the right type of stretching -- the kind that actually feel good while you do them (and after!) -- we highly recommend an examination to identify your range of motion to determine what exercises and stretches will best help you without risk of injury.
7. Quit Smoking
Smokers have more spine pain than non-smokers, according to the American Chiropractic Association. They also take longer to heal when they have spine pain because the chemicals in tobacco smoke restrict the flow of blood to the tissues in and around your spine.
American Chiropractic Association
Peak Performance Chiropractic