Back Pain


How the Back Works

In order to understand what's going wrong with your back when it's hurting, it's important to understand how a healthy back functions.

Your back, although it may not always feel like it, is a magnificently complicated and efficient machine..

Each movement of your body involves a complex interaction of

  • Vertebrae (the spine)
  • Discs
  • Ligaments
  • Tendons
  • Contraction and expansion of back muscles

For definitions of each of these read below…

The Spine is the “Backbone” of Your Body

Your spine—also known as your backbone--is comprised of 24 irregularly-shaped bone blocks called vertebrae, stacked one on top of each other, beginning at your pelvis and ending at the base of your skull (There are a few more extra  vertebrae at the bottom, fused together remnants of a vestigial tail which don't affect back pain or movement much.) The spine gives protection to the spinal cord, the bundle of nerves that runs right through the center of the spine in a hole in each vertebrae and relays messages from the brain to the rest of your body.

Normal Spine

Discs Are Your Back's Shock Absorbers

Between each of these vertebrae are little tough, fibrous cartilage cushions called discs. Think of them as the “shock absorbers” of your spine. They prevent the vertebrae from clacking against each other and also give the spine its flexibility. They absorb shock when you walk, jump or run. Strong, stretchy muscles called ligaments are what hold all these vertebrae and discs together in a column. These muscles are attached to the vertebrae by rubbery connections called tendons.

Spinal Discs

The Spine Lets You Walk Tall

The spine is what allows you to hold your head and body erect. It's also central in allowing you to bend and twist: the spine comes into play in almost every motion your body makes. Individually, the joints between each vertebrae are not very flexible, but together they give the back a wide range of motion.

The Lumbar Region Bears a Heavy Burden

Doctors traditionally divide the spine into five regions:

  • Cervical vertebrae
  • Thoracic vertebrae
  • Lumbar vertebrae
  • Sacrum
  • Coccyx.

When cheerleaders form a pyramid, it's the unfortunate girls on the bottom who are doing most of the work, supporting their colleagues who are up at the top, having all the fun.

So it is with the spine, too. As you can tell from the picture, your lumbar vertebrae do the work of supporting the rest of the spine. In fact, they bear the weight of much of the upper body (plus any weight—like a friend's couch--you might be moving). They also happen to do more twisting and bending during day-to-day activities than any other part of the back. Life just isn't fair for those cheerleaders and lumbar vertebrae.

Due to the lumbar vertebrae's extra duties, it's often the place where back pain originates. In fact, when your back is hurting, it's most often caused by muscle, disc or ligament damage in the lumbar region.

To read more about problems with the lumbar region, as well as other possible causes of back pain, go on to the next page.

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