Bone Basics and Your Spine
Bones are efficient, sophisticated bundles of tissue, minerals, and water. Their jobs go well beyond basic skeletal framework. They are protective shells for vital organs such as the heart, the brain, and the spinal cord; they are scaffolding upon which muscles attach; and they are manufacturing centers for blood cells. Talk about multitasking! Linked by ligaments and moved by muscles, bones support a lot of weight without being crushed or broken (at least not until there is trauma or disease).
The Back and Beyond
Bones are four times stronger than concrete. The minerals calcium and phosphorus make bones (and teeth) hard and strong. Eating foods that contain these minerals, such as yogurt and spinach, helps keep your bones healthy.
Bones are living, breathing structures. They don't exactly inhale and exhale, but bones do make red (and white) blood cells. Red cells deliver oxygen, whereas the white ones rush like battlefront nurses to fight germs and diseases. If bones weren't alive, a broken bone would remain broken forever. Instead, they remarkably repair themselves(often with a little help from our medical friends). This natural ability for self-repair is the same for a broken finger as it is for a fractured backbone.
More Bones at Birth
At birth, we have about 350 bones in our bodies. Some bones fuse together as we grow, including the vertebrae at the bottom of the spine, called the sacrum and tailbone. If you were a cat or a dog, your vertebral ends would form a tail able to wag happily and whip wine glasses off a coffee table. It takes about 20 years for bones to mature into an adult skeleton, which on average has 206 skeletal bones.
Different Shapes and Sizes
Bones come in many shapes and sizes, each designed for a particular function. The bones of the spine, called vertebrae, are like cylindrical building blocks. They stack on top of each other like small cans separated by little cushions called discs. The spinal column (also known as the vertebral column) is held together mainly by discs and facet joints with support from ligaments and muscles.
The place where two bones come together is a called a joint. In the spine, the joint formed at meeting of two vertebrae is called a facet joint. Like joints anywhere in the body, they can swell and pinch nerves. Many people focus on the discs as a source of back pain although the facet joints are often to blame.
Jason Highsmith, MD is a practicing neurosurgeon in Charleston, NC and the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Back Pain. Click here for more information about the book.