The Backbone and How It works
“Good ideas” someone once said “are the backbone of good government”
The human body has 206 bones, 29 of which are in the head. Yet those bones do not distinguish us from other animals. It is the 24 that make up the backbone that really are the difference between human beings and other vertebrate animals. No other creature stands up tall on its legs and walks about, arms at the side. Why we decided to behave this way is not clear, but the advantages that have accrued since that decision was made are clear for all to see.
The human backbone or vertebral column, consists of 24 bones which sit on two other bones or vertebrae. They begin from the base of the skull as the cervical vertebrae which are seven in number. These are the bones that form the neck. Each cervical bone has a number starting with C1 at the top ending at C7. Next come the thoracic vertebrae which start at T1 to T12. These are the bones that form the upper part of the chest, the rib cage. The lower part of the trunk is the lumbar region made up of five vertebrae. Finally there is the sacrum, which is the triangularly shaped bone located between the hip bones.
Of interest is that from birth the sacrum consists of five separate bones which begin to fuse during late teens and are usually completely fused by the age of 25 or 26. Right at the bottom of all these vertebrae sits the coccyx – the tail bone- for those animals that sport a tail. The main functions of the vertebral bones are for structure and protection of the spinal cord.
To accomplish this task, seen from the side, the spine forms itself into four curves namely, the cervical curve; thoracic curve; lumbar curve; sacral or pelvic curve. These curves are what gives these set of bones the mechanical strength to hang all the weight that we put on them. There are several problems that can arise that can change the structure of the spine or damage the vertebrae and surrounding tissue. The longer you live the greater the chances that you will experience one of these problems. The most common include infection, injuries, degenerative conditions and tumours. Pain is often the first thing we feel when there is a problem with the spine. Drive consistently stupidly fast and reckless with or without a seatbelt and eventually you will crash your vehicle.
You might want to call that road traffic crash an accident for insurance purposes. Nevertheless one common type of injury is a painful neck caused by the ‘whiplash’ when your heavy head is brought to a sudden halt. Play rugby vigourously enough and eventually you will receive a proper rugby tackle under the ribs and fall heavily to the ground. A cracked rib and adjacent back pain is not uncommon.
As we grow older we do not need such drama to injure the back. Lower back pain occurs just due the bad siting posture we adopt. Add in the weight of that huge belly straining not just the shirt but the lumbar vertebrae as well and eventually the pain appears. Infections thankfully are rare, but tumours do occur. However degenerative conditions are the most common. As we grow older the friction, the wear and tear begin to tell. Having weak muscles means that the bone ligaments are left exposed, bearing all the forces of movement.
The pain whatever the cause is because changes in the bone structure puts pressure on the spinal cord nerves. So the treatment usually starts first with relieving the pain. When the problem is an acute injury then the source of the problem has gone away. What is left is to sort out the damage done. So management consists of pain relief and supporting the vertebrae until all has healed. When the problem is chronic, for example degenerative arthritis, then there is no cure unless it is to remove the offending tissue that has degenerated.
The problem then is how to make up for the function it had. Back braces may help. Exercise is also useful to make the muscles around the area strong. But from a health stand point you really do not want to reach that point, the best is preventive, looking after this well thought out structure that provides strength, flexibility and protection to the vital organs that enable us to outdo all other animals.