We often refer to the most important component of something as the ‘backbone’ – the key element that holds everything together. When the human body is concerned, the expression takes on a literal meaning, since the spinal column is the most crucial series of bones that holds the entire musculoskeletal structure in place. Yet, many of us tend to take our spinal health for granted.
Understanding Our Anatomy
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), spinal and bone problems are one of the greatest threats to our well-being, right after cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. Indeed, the spine does more than just enabling us to stand upright; there are nerves running down the spine that control many of the body’s sensory, metabolic and various other vital bodily functions.
The spine consists of 33 individual bones – known as the vertebrae – that are interlocked together. The entire spinal column is divided into four regions: the neck (cervical), mid-back (thoracic), lower back (lumbar) and tailbone (sacrum and coccyx). Only the first three regions made up of 24 vertebrae are movable, while the remaining nine pieces that form the tailbone are fused.
When a Backache is Not Just a Backache
Do you often have to place one hand on your waist and hold on to something for support when getting up from a seated position? The backache could be just be a minor sprain or caused by something in your gene code, but whatever the cause, it is definitely an indicator that your spine is crying out for help.
“There are many different types and severity of spinal condition, from mild musculoskeletal conditions such as sprains and strains to moderate conditions like 'slipped discs', or severe conditions such as cauda equina syndrome that requires immediate surgical intervention,” explains Dr Rita Wong, a registered chiropractor.
She further clarifies that problems in the spine can either be congenital and acquired. “Some spinal conditions have a strong genetic predisposition, such as scoliosis (a side bending of the spine) and ankylosing spondylosis (a chronic inflammatory autoimmune spinal condition). However, acquired spinal problems often result from lifestyle habits or trauma-related injuries,” says Dr Wong.
With so many possibilities that could cause backache, here are some significant signs and symptoms that may signal serious spinal problems. According to Dr Wong, they should not be taken lightly and require prompt medical attention.
- Pain that does not subside after a few days
- Frequent numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
- Significant muscle weakness or wasting
- Loss of deep tendon reflexes
- Onset of bowel or bladder dysfunction
- Sensory loss in the buttock area
- Pain that remains when lying down and causes sleep disturbances
- Fevers and chills that are accompanied by unexplained weight loss
Additionally, Dr Wong cautions those with a medical history of cancer to pay extra attention to spinal pain. “Breast, lung, gastrointestinal, prostate, renal, and thyroid cancers are more likely to metastasize in the spine,” she said. The same also goes for those who had suffered major or minor trauma from physical injuries, as they are at risk of developing serious mobility problems in the spinal column.
Apart from these various possibilities, Dr Wong reminds, “Aging is the most common causes of spinal pain.”
The Perils of Modern Conveniences
For generally healthy individuals, spinal problems can develop gradually over time, often the cumulative result of prolonged lifestyle habits that ultimately take their toll. “Modern lifestyle has created many hidden problems for our spine. Immobility from prolonged sitting on office chairs and sofas causes back stiffness and radiating buttock pain, known as sciatica. People spend long hours in front of computers and mobile devices with their head tilting forward and mid-back hunching,” said Dr Wong.
Unfortunately, early signs of spinal problems are usually ignored or dismissed as tiredness from overworking or harmless muscle strains. If you habitually work before a computer for hours on end, and exercise less than three hours per week, these signs may be a cue to start paying attention to your spinal health:
- Bone cracking sounds can be heard when you move your neck, back or joints
- Your neck and back have poor range of motion
- You often feel tired or have difficulty concentrating
- Your feet turned out when you walk
- You tend to slouch when sitting or walking
- You experience pain in the eyes, shoulder, neck and lumbar region
Move that Body!
Maintaining good spinal mobility and slowing down the effects of aging comes down to an obvious yet often overlooked fact: Our bodies are not meant to be sedentary. “Movement is the key to a healthy spine. I would recommend people to get up and walk around every 30 minutes at home or in the office. When driving long distances or taking long flights, be sure to move around every hour. Take a pit stop, or go to the washroom to promote spinal mobility throughout your drive. Some light stretches should also be done on our neck and back every morning and evening, before we start and finish work, in order to condition our muscles and ligaments for the daily activities we take part in,” Dr Wong said.
While sports and workout-related injuries are among the common causes of spinal problems, the right kind of exercises is also the best prevention. According to Dr Wong, a strong core is the foundation to minimizing injuries.
“Core strengthening is more than just achieving six-pack abs. Developing strong core muscles may actually help prevent back pain by making you less susceptible to back injuries and maintaining proper posture. If you think about it, your core supports the spine, which is the axial skeleton of your body. It needs to be strong to assist in distributing the weight load of your entire body. By improving your core strength, you will also be less likely to rely on other back pain treatments and remedies. Core exercises should involve the major muscles in your abdomen, including your internal and external obliques and the transverse abdominals,” she advises. However, staying active is only half the equation.
Nourishment for Your Spine
“A healthy spine includes maintaining the well-being of body structures such as bones, muscles and spinal discs,” says Dr Wong. This means ensuring one maintains a balanced diet rich in the essential vitamins and minerals.
Since the spine is basically bones, sufficient calcium intake is important to maintain bone density and prevent osteoporosis. While it does protect from brittle bones that may happen with aging, Dr Wong would like to debunk a common myth about the role of the go-to mineral for bone health, “Calcium does not prevent degenerative joint disease (osteoarthritis). It only supplies mineral to promote stronger bones. Degenerative joint problems usually result from the wear-and-tear of the joint, which is part of the aging process. After repetitive stress, the joint space became narrowed, but taking calcium would not increase the joint space, or reduce the degenerative process.
Luckily, calcium-rich foods sources also contain plenty other nutrients that promote overall spinal column health. Dairy products, dark leafy vegetables, tofu, nuts, lentils and beans are not only rich in calcium, but also iron, magnesium, and Vitamins, A, B12, D and K.
“Iron also aids in the production of myoglobin, an important element of healthy muscles that are needed to support the spine. Magnesium aids in the relaxation and contraction of muscles. It also helps maintain muscle tone and bone density, which in turn can help prevent back problems. Vitamin A is an antioxidant that assists the immune system in fighting off diseases, and helps with tissue repair. Vitamin B12 is beneficial to the bone marrow. Vitamin D helps to improve calcium absorption, which is important for the development of strong and healthy bones to prevent osteoporosis. Finally, the combination of vitamin K and calcium works to maintain strong and healthy bones,” Dr Wong elaborates.
She adds that fruits high in Vitamin C, such as citruses, kiwis, strawberries and tomatoes should also be the staple of one’s diet. “Vitamin C contributes towards the development of collagen tor healing injured tendons, ligaments and vertebral discs, as well as for keeping bones and other tissues strong,” concludes Dr Wong.
Mayfield Clinic. Available at www.mayfieldclinic.com
Ge, T. (2015, Fall). Health Bones Part 1: Healthy Spine, Healthy Body. Meditation & Health; 5(2): 12-