Let’s take time to get ‘back’ to basicsBy M. ERIC WILLIAMS,
One of the most common complaints from ‘people of a certain age’ is lower back pain. Of course, I don’t consider myself to be at that a ‘certain age’ yet, but I still struggle with it from time to time.
In addition to being the number one reason people miss work, back pain is also the single largest cause of disability in the United States. In fact, Americans spent 50 billion dollars on back injuries last year alone. With all this in mind, it is amazing how little the average person knows about their backbone.
To begin, the spine is a row composed of 33 bones. Individual bones are called vertebra and stack together to form the spinal column.
There are five main sections of the spinal column that follow the natural curve of your back.
Coming down from the neck, there is the cervical (seven vertebrae), thoracic (twelve vertebrae), lumbar (five vertebrae), sacrum (five fused vertebrae), and coccyx or tailbone (four fused vertebrae). The spinal column accomplishes many tasks for the body including giving you support as well as allowing us to walk upright.
One of the most important functions is that it is a housing for the spinal cord as it exits the brain. The spinal cord is an extension of the central nervous system and travels in a hollow center of the vertebrae column.
From the spinal cord, lots of spinal nerve roots branch out to every part of your body. These nerves are responsible for giving you sensation, movement, and pain stimulation at the various points of your body. Sometimes these nerves braid together when they leave the spinal cord and form into a bundle of nerves that work together as one.
This is called a plexus. A great example of this is the sciatic nerve that is formed from the lumbar and sacral spinal roots. The sciatic nerve gives much of the sensation to the lower legs, but more on it later.
Between each vertebra is a disc that is filled with a gel-like center that provides a cushion and acts as a shock absorber to the bones of the vertebrae.
I think of it as a jelly doughnut between two small bricks. If we put too much pressure on one of the bricks by lifting improperly or straining, the jelly will be smashed out of the doughnut. This, in a nutshell, is what happens when a disc becomes ruptured.
Sometimes, it will only bulge out the side. In either case, the result is usually that one or more nerves coming out of the spinal column are impaired. When this happens, we can feel a range of sensations from burning to numbness wherever the affected nerve is traveling.
The lumbar is the most frequently injured part of the back. Because of this, the sciatic nerve is often affected. This sometimes leads to the classic burning and injury that is felt in the calf muscles whenever the lumbar is injured. The good news is that isolated ruptured discs generally heal well on their own with proper care and medication from your physician.
Of course, there are hundreds of other back conditions that could affect a person. Some are not preventable, but many are.
Remember to always use proper lifting techniques whenever you are moving an object. Bring the load as close to your body as possible before lifting. Use the muscles of your legs and try to maintain the natural curve of your lower back. Avoid twisting and let your lower body do the work.
A neurologist friend once told me that he believed the human back only has so many lifts in it before it completely gives out. With every improper lift, you are only subtracting from this number faster. Be kind to your back, you’ll miss it when it’s gone.
Stay safe out there.
M. Eric Williams, MS, NR-P is a Mississippi native and Instructor of Emergency Medicine. He is a Doctoral Candidate and has 15 years’ experience in healthcare. If you have questions or comments, you may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.