Get to Know Your Back

Understanding is critical to finding the right back pain treatment

Spinal column color coded by regionWhen people who haven’t been treated for chronic back pain think about their spines, they often envision one continuous structure that vertically extends from their neck to the tailbone. While it is true that the spine covers quite a bit of real estate in our body, it is definitely an intricate, amazingly complex grouping of several structures. I don’t want to bore anyone with numbers here or to provide an anatomy lesson, but I think some understanding can go a long way – especially if you’re suffering from back pain and looking for answers.

As an adult, your spine is made up of 24 vertebrae, which are bones stacked atop each other to form the entire spinal column. Vertebrae are the protective framework through which your spinal cord passes. The spinal cord itself is the “superhighway” of nerves that carry your brain signals to the rest of your body, allowing you to move your arms and legs. Separating your vertebrae are these soft, spongy “shock absorber” structures called intervertebral discs. They help keep your vertebrae a healthy distance apart so that you can move well. If that intricate design wasn’t cool enough, you should also know that there are more than 120 large and small muscles around the spine and the spinal column itself has multiple ligaments.

So what’s the point? I have two. First, because your spine is such a complicated and incredible network of bones, discs, muscles, nerves and ligaments, getting to the bottom of exactly what’s wrong when your back hurts can also be a complicated process. With the proper testing, sometimes that problem is obvious. Other times, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. I’ve written a lot about this here.

My second point has to do with time. Time can be a tricky gauge when you’re suffering from back pain. On one hand, when its stiffness and muscle stress that happens every now and then, time can often be the best medicine to cure it. But when we’re talking about chronic back pain – pain (even if it isn’t severe) that has lasted for more than three months, waiting to have it evaluated can be harmful. Think of all those complex structures in your spine as a row of dominos. Yes, it’s a really strong row. But when one domino falls, it puts pressure on all the other dominos around it to work harder. With respect to how amazingly resilient your spine is, it usually will work harder to support the failing structure – but for how long is the question. Over time, the domino effect of chronic back pain that has gone untreated by a highly qualified spine specialist will eventually cause failure of other structures around it. There’s no telling how long it will hold up, but it’s fairly certain that it won’t be forever.

Your spine is strong. It was designed to support your entire body weight and the additional weight of loads that you carry. It deserves care and respect. But it isn’t titanium. It can get injured. And when it does, making sure that you pay close attention to it will be a safeguard that it continues working well for as long as you both shall live.