Your Spine is Your Lifeline
Your body is like a science project. It is filled with cells; bones; muscles; tissues; organs; and your brain. Your spine, however, often becomes a critical but often-overlooked part of a healthy life. Consider all the many roles this vertebral structure plays in overall health. Your spine:
- Keeps you upright.
- Connects other body parts such as your head, chest, pelvis, shoulders, arms, and legs.
- Forms your body’s central support system that carries your head, torso, and arms.
- Lets your body move in different directions, such as bending and twisting. Some parts, like your neck, are more flexible for areas that require movement.
For such a slender structure, your spine is amazingly complex. The bones that make up the spine also protect the spinal cord while elastic ligaments and spinal disks allow your spine to be flexible.
About 80 percent of people suffer from spinal pain at some point. People who are overweight or obese, not physically fit, between 30 and 50, frequently lift heavy objects, or maintain poor posture are especially at risk for back injuries.
But everyone — and every body — benefits from a healthy spine.
The Shape and Function of the Spine
The 33 individual bones stacked on top of each other form the spinal column, which supports your entire body. Strong muscles and bones, flexible tendons and ligaments, and sensitive nerves all contribute to a healthy spine.
Your spine itself is made of vertebra, or the bony units made up of three parts:
- A drum-shaped body that bears weight and withstands compression.
- An arch-shaped bone that protects your spinal cord.
- Star-shaped processes that help attach muscles.
When you stack these vertebrae, the arch aligns and forms your spinal canal.
Of the 33 bones or vertebrae that form your spine, 24 are separate bones that allow movement. Nine are fused together. These vertebrae are divided into five sections:
- The cervical spine makes up your neck and contains seven vertebrae. The top two bones — the atlas and axis — allow your skull to rotate and move frontwards and backwards.
- The thoracic spine has 12 vertebrae. Your ribs attach to these vertebrae.
- The lumbar spine has five vertebrae and make up the lower back.
- The sacrum consists of five bones fused together.
- The coccyx is made up of four tiny bones.
Structurally, lower areas of your spine are larger, more stable, and carry more weight than the upper regions.
Bones or vertebrae need something to buffer so they don’t rub against each other. These cushions, called intervertebral disks, sit between each vertebra and are made up of cartilage, collagen fibers, and water.
Intervertebral disks let your spine move and absorb any type of force to your spine. Ligaments hold the vertebrae and intervertebral disks together.
A healthy adult spine has four slight natural curves, which forms an S shape. This curvature helps you balance when you’re standing up, absorbs shock when you walk, protects bones or vertebrae from fractures, and keeps your body stable.
The Spine and Your Nervous System
Your spine protects the delicate nerve tissue within the spinal cord.
Many nerve fibers make up your nervous system. These fibers run from the base of your brain to the small of your back. They help your brain communicate with the rest of your body.
Spinal nerves carry electrical signals from your brain to muscles and internal organs. They also relay information like touch, pressure, cold, warmth, pain, and other sensations from the skin and other organs to your brain. These communication highways all occur via the spine.
Your nervous system falls into two categories:
• The central nervous system (CNS) runs along the spinal column. It includes the brain and brainstem.
• The peripheral nervous system (PNS) branches out into the organs and limbs.
These two systems work together. Let’s say you touch a hot stove. Your PNS sends pain signals through the CNS to your brain. Your brain returns the message: Pull your hand away!
Your PNS does other involuntary things like digestion. Your CNS, on the other hand, relays movement, sensation, and thought processes from your brain to the body and back again.
Spinal nerves that make up your nervous travel from the spinal cord. They send and receive signals from organs such as your muscles and skin. These nerves are bundled together and protected within your vertebral column communicate and connect with every limb, system, and organ within your body.
A healthy spinal cord protects these nerves and communicates clearly with your brain. But any shift in vertebral alignment can create problems.
How the Spine Becomes Damaged
- Protects your spinal cord, nerve roots, and several internal organs.
- Provides structural support and balance so you can maintain an upright posture
- Enables you to be flexible and maintain a wide range of motion.
When stress or trauma repeatedly impacts your spine, it loses its ability to carry out those roles.
Think of what happens if you break your arm or leg. When a vertebra becomes damaged, the same thing occurs. The force pushing it can create a fracture. When ligaments that hold vertebrae together break, those stacked vertebrae fall out of alignment, which can also create damage.
In other words, falling out of alignment and breaking can both injure your spinal cord. Among their damage, shifts in your vertebral alignment can create muscular discomfort and even bone-on-bone pain that extends throughout your body.
Spinal injuries can occur from a single traumatic event, such as lifting something heavy improperly. Or those injuries can occur from repetitive stress, such as sitting in an awkward position with poor spinal posture.
Interference in your spine and spinal injuries can occur in many ways:
• Trauma. Spinal trauma can occur in car accidents, falls, and sports injuries. While your spine can withstand most forces, slips, falls, poor posture, and other hits take their toll over time. The more your body and spine get hit, the less trauma your spine can absorb, creating inflammation and pain.
• Posture. When you sit or stand incorrectly, your spine absorbs that impact. Over time, the muscle tone that holds your body in alignment breaks down.
• Stress. Stress can be mental or emotional, such as when you feel pressure at your job or with your family. But it can be physical, such as poor posture. Stress can also be chemical, such as too many environmental toxins. Poor spinal health can create inflammation that impacts your heart and other organs. Conversely, feeling stressed out impacts your posture and knocks your spine out of alignment.
Many times, these problems occur subtly. Think about the many things you do on a daily basis:
- You toss and turn most nights.
- You wake up in a bed with pillows that don’t support your spine well.
- You sit in a chair at work that doesn’t support proper posture.
- You go home after work to lie on your couch watching TV or sit slouched in a chair internet surfing with your spine not fully supported.
Those little things add up, knocking your spine out of alignment. Over time, these stressors build up and increase your risk for injuries. They create interference in your nervous system that eventually contributes to chronic disease.
Interferences can occur in many ways. They can happen suddenly and last for a short period of time. Or they can build up quietly and manifest slowly.
Even if these interferences seem subtle, they can trigger big problems over time including hormonal imbalances, which can conversely impact your spinal alignment.
These interferences, called vertebral subluxations or subluxations, can occur in specific spinal segments or entire regions like your neck. Subluxations interfere with how your nervous system functions, which can subsequently create problems throughout your body.
The Science of Chiropractic Care for Your Spine
A chiropractor can address these issues and help you better maintain your spinal health in the future.
When you visit a chiropractor, he or she looks for what’s interfering with your spinal alignment and corrects it. Chiropractors remove whatever interferes with the natural function of your body. After all, anything that interferes with the spine will eventually impact your entire body.
Chiropractors maintain rigorous training, similar to that of medical doctors. They understand the intricacy of the spine and how this vertebral column impacts your entire body.
When you visit your chiropractor, he or she will give you an adjustment to remove interference. These adjustments allow for greater communication within your body and help you feel better.
Consider back pain, which is the number one cause of disability. (26) When a chiropractor re-aligns the vertebrae in your spinal column, he or she removes the interferences between your brain and body so they communicate more effectively.
That’s why adjustments help your back feel better, but they also help everything work better.
These adjustments can be simple, but profound. Chiropractors are trained to identify and remove these interferences that impact your nervous system. Then they allow the body to heal itself.