Back Structure

Although many mammals have spines, the specific structure of the human back is what allows us to stand up, sit down, twist and move in the way we do. The spine is made up of many interconnected parts. The complexity of tissues, fibers, bones and nerves can be broken down into three general parts: the vertebral column (also called the spinal column), the neural aspect, and the soft tissues.

The first of the three parts of the spine is the bony structure, or the vertebral column. The vertebral column is made up of individual bones called the vertebra and each vertebra is then made up of three parts, the body, pedicle and the facet joints. These parts create a tube-like structure for the spinal cord and are the building blocks that keep the vertebrae connected.

The spinal column is divided into five sections that each play an individual role. The five sections from the top to the bottom are the cervical (neck), thoracic (ribs and upper back), lumbar (lower back), sacral and the coccyx. You might have heard people refer to their C4 or L5. This is a reference to a particular vertebra in a particular section.  Each section is numbered from top to bottom – starting again at 1 when getting to the next section.

  • C1-C7 – The Cervical spine is the top section of the spinal column. The Cervical spine has seven vertebrae (C1-7), the first being the ring-shaped “Atlas” and the second being the toothed “Axis.” As Atlas had to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, it is the top vertebra’s job to balance the weight of the head. The special construction of the Axis, with its tooth that fits into the ring of the Atlas (the tooth is called the “dens”), allows the neck to rotate.
  • T1-T12 – The Thoracic spine is made up of 12 vertebrae (T1-12) and supports the middle part of the back and ribs. Although the ribs aren’t fused to the Thoracic vertebrae they are connected by soft tissues. This section primarily allows forward and backward motion and the bones are quite large, so nerve compression happens less often.
  • L1 – L5 – The Lumbar spine has fewer vertebrae – just five (L1-5), but they take on most of the body’s weight and therefore most of the biomechanical stresses as well, which is why you often hear people talk about lower back pain. The lumbar vertebrae are the largest in size of the vertebrae.
  • The Sacral spine (called the Sacrum) has five (or sometimes six) vertebrae that are fused together into a triangular shape. The Sacrum connects the spine to the pelvis and sits between the hipbones.
  • The bottom three (sometimes four) bones of the spinal column are also fused together to form the Coccyx or tailbone. These bones are shaped differently than the rest of the vertebrae.

The second part of the spine is the neural aspect. This is made up of the spinal cord and the nerve roots (as well as spinal fluid around the whole area). Starting at the base of the brain and running two-thirds of the way down the back, the spinal cord ends in the thoracic spine and then splits off into a group of nerve roots. Because these nerve roots look like a horsetail, it is named the cauda equina (horse tail in Latin). All of the bones, fluids, muscles and other soft tissues all protect the spinal cord and the nerve roots. Nerve roots also spring out at each vertebral level to bring feeling to different parts of the body, e.g. nerve roots in the lumbar region bring feeling to the legs.

The third of the elements to the spine are the soft tissues. Ligaments, cartilage, muscles and invertebral disks support and hold up the spine and therefore the body. They provide cushioning, add lubrication to the joints, connect the vertebra to one another, and act as shock absorbers.

Ligaments connect the vertebrae and keep the spine in line. There are two main ligaments that provide stability, the anterior and posterior longitudinal ligaments that run all the way along the spine. The many muscles in the back keep vulnerable organs protected and provide additional stability. Invertebral disks provide cushioning between vertebrae. The disks are comprised of fibrous outer rings and a jelly-like nucleus and sit between most of the vertebrae and act as shock absorbers. The cartilage between and around the bones helps to lubricate the movements for easier motion of the spine.

The spine provides integral structural support for the whole body and protection from internal organs and the spinal cord.

Stress and Back Pain

Many of the maladies that we feel today are either caused by or exacerbated by stress. There are environmental stressors, such as pressure at work or money problems, or emotional stressors, such as distress or trauma from past experiences. Either way the stress can manifest itself into a physical problem such as tension or anxiety. Not all back pain is stress-related, but stress can play a significant role in creating some forms of back pain.

When a person is feeling stress their muscles tense up. This tension can happen gradually so that the person is unaware that it is occurring, and therefore difficult to release. Tension reduces blood flow to an area, which reduces the amount of oxygen and nutrients going to the area and also increases the toxin buildup, since the blood isn’t carrying the toxins away. Over time the lack of oxygen will weaken a muscle, which then becomes more susceptible to injury. Short term issues such as stiffness or spasms can weaken the muscle even further which can then lead to more chronic issues such as sciatica or degenerative disk disease.

After the most painful of the back pain has been eased, and a health care provider has given the go-ahead, reducing stress should be a priority in recovery.  Lessening the effects of stress is likely an ongoing process. Daily stress-reducers, such as practicing relaxation techniques and deep breathing could be combined with exercise for maximum efficacy.

Proven relaxation techniques include rest, guided relaxation, deep breathing, meditation and massage. Exercises that can benefit just about anyone are stretching, walking, swimming and yoga. The concentration in yoga also helps to quiet the mind. Aerobic exercise releases endorphins into the system, so if back pain is stemming from an emotional stressor and the sufferer is depressed then it is possible for the endorphins to elevate a person’s mood.

For the more emotionally-based stress cases, talk therapy, whether one-on-one or in a group, can be very beneficial.

For the majority of people, non-pharmaceutical methods of treatment are highly successful. However, when the back pain is caused by acute pain such (muscle spasms or strain), then muscle relaxants or anti-inflammatories might be needed initially. Caffeine can cause anxiety, so it is best if caffeine is removed from the diet, at least initially.

Eating well will also help to keep you close to your body’s ideal weight, which means less pressure and stress on the back and more nutrients in your system. Drinking several large glasses of water a day keeps everything hydrated and helps to remove toxins from the body. Resting can give muscles time to recover from stress and overuse and the body time to relax.

Back Pain and Computer Usage

If you’ve ever spent a long time in front of a computer, you know the hypnotized feeling that you have when you finally get up to walk around. Sitting puts stress on the body and if you sit for a long time without taking a break, this strain can take an effect on the back and neck. About 80% of the population will experience back pain at some time in their lives.

When thinking about the pain that you feel when sitting for a long period, it is good to understand the torso and its interrelated parts. The spinal column is made up of the vertebrae, the nerves (spinal cord and nerve roots) and the soft tissues surrounding these parts including disks, muscles, ligaments, and fluid. When stressed staring at a computer, arms, legs, head, neck, back and chest can experience tingling, pain, aching, burning, muscles spasm, or other discomfort that is originating in the back. These symptoms are all likely indicators of budding back or neck problems.

Most cases of back pain from computer usage are not caused by a serious condition, but from the combination of a work space being set up incorrectly and sitting in an improper position for too long. Here are some of the things people do while they are “hypnotized” by their computer: sitting for too long without stretching, sitting in a chair or position that causes bad posture, looking too far up or down to see the monitor, or having the keyboard at a harsh angle. Aches start occurring in the back and neck and even if you get up and walk around, the minute you sit down again, the problems are right back again.

Here are some prevention measures you can take so that this back pain from computer usage never occurs (or is at least reduced in severity).

  • First – Set up your work area so that it is ergonomically correct. You shouldn’t have to reach, twist or bend – especially for items that you use often.
  • Second – Be aware of what your body is doing while you sit. Don’t slump or slouch; sit up so that your vertebrae can be aligned with their proper curvature. Relax your shoulders; don’t hike them up around your ears. Try to have right angles at the ankles, knees, hips and elbows. Your elbows should be close to your side. The natural way that your wrists line up with your forearms should be the way that you type and mouse – no angles at the wrists.
  • Third – Stretch occasionally. (Give everything some attention – your jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, lower back, hips, legs, ankles and toes.) Look around occasionally and close your eyelids to give your eyes a rest. Stand up and walk around. A quick two-minute walk down the hall can clear your head too!

We all have work or studying to get done, but taking these breaks will make you more productive in the long run and maybe even keep you out of the physical therapist’s office.

Most of us Have Suffered From Back Pain

Like the home page suggests, 2/3 of us will have suffered back pain in our lifetime.

There are many ways you can hurt your back, and many reasons why you can have continued back pain.

This blog/website will talk about some of the various ways I have hurt my back in the past, and numerous ways I have attempted to treat it. Including stretching, exercise, prescription and over the counter drugs.

It seems like what has prevented me from hurting so much lately has been losing some weight, strengthening my back through exercise, and upgrading my office chair to a highly ergonomic and adjustable one.

Not only that, but taking frequent breaks from sitting and staring at the computer have also seemed to help.

Like with any exercise or medical advice that you read or see on the web, you consult your physician prior to doing anything you read about online. They will know what is best for you. Please read our disclaimer for further info.