Questions & Answers

From understanding what the spine actually does to knowing how intervertebral discs function and whether running really is bad for your back – discover all the answers to your questions.

What are the functions of the spine?

The spine protects the spinal cord, stabilises the trunk and at the same time ensures its mobility thanks to the very structural characteristics of the spine, such as the vertebrae articulated between one another and the intervertebral discs that allow mobility.

What are the characteristics of the spine?

The spine is made up of 34-35 vertebrae that are divided into: cervical (7 vertebrae), thoracic (12 vertebrae), lumbar (5 vertebrae), sacral (5 vertebrae), and coccyx (4-5 vertebrae). Each vertebra has one above and below it through epiphyseal joints and separated by the intervertebral disc. Each vertebra forms a canal, called the spinal canal through which the spinal cord passes.

All this is to ensure both the stability and mobility of the trunk. Each vertebra has structures that serve several muscles and ligaments. The spine has four physiological curves, the dorsal and sacral kyphosis and the lumbar and cervical lordosis. If these curves are accentuated due to bad posture or muscle imbalances, abnormal curves are formed that modify the relations between the different structures and the compressive force is distributed differently which is bad for the back.

What is the intervertebral disc?

The intervertebral disc is a structure of connective tissue between one vertebra and another, with the exception of the first two cervical vertebrae that are directly connected to each other. The inner portion of the disc consists of a nucleus – the nucleus pulpous, which has the appearance of a gelatinous substance. The core is surrounded by a fibrous ring formed by connective tissue fibres arranged to form concentric rings. The fibres provide increased protection of the nucleus pulpous and improve the spine’s stress resistance. The intervertebral disc is separated from the vertebra of a cartilage plate.

The intervertebral discs facilitate the mobility of the spine whilst protecting it – as the discs act as a sort of bearing which cushions and absorbs shocks. The intervertebral disc undergoes degeneration due to wear and aging. The nucleus pulpous, which is well-hydrated in childhood and adulthood, gradually begins to lose thickness after the age of 50 which reduces shock absorption. So the fibrous ring is more stressed and can easily break and the cartilage plate is gradually replaced by bone tissue.

What are the risk factors for back pain?

There are many risk factors that contribute to back pain. Rarely, there is only one cause, with the exception of cases such as lumbago in which the stabbing pain is due to an incorrect movement when lifting a heavy load, but, which tends to disappear within a few days.

A weak musculoskeletal structure can cause back pain, so you need to stay active to strengthen muscles, and a sedentary lifestyle and poor physical fitness are two important risk factors. Being overweight is a risk factor too, as it puts greater stress on joints meaning the individual vertebrae may not be aligned properly, resulting in bad postures which puts even more pressure on the spine. Smoking, too, is a risk factor and specifically for the health of the intervertebral discs as smoking reduces the oxygen supply to the spinal tissues.

Is there a genetic predisposition to back pain?

There are some congenital deformities that may predispose a person to develop diseases that result in back pain. These are linked in particular to alterations in anatomical structures, such as a narrow vertebral canal, or a family history of osteoarthritis.

Why is exercise important in the prevention of back pain?

Exercise is important in the prevention of back pain because it tones muscles and keep them strong and elastic, so that they can respond better to stress and trauma. With physical activity, there is an improvement in the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the core of the intervertebral discs.

Which sport is better in preventing back pain?

There actually is no specific sport for preventing back pain. The important thing is moving, being active and avoiding a sedentary lifestyle. All you need to do is strengthen muscles just enough to keep them toned and balanced.

Is running bad for your back?

Because of the continuous impact with the ground that affects the spine, many people tend to think that running is bad for your back. In fact, it has been shown that through proper preparation – you can run without a high risk of developing back pain. And this applies to almost every sport.

Is swimming best for a healthy back?

Contrary to popular belief, swimming is not good at preventing back pain or to treat low back pain. The fact is that you are able to swim even with back pain due to the reduced force of gravity, however, if you need to strengthen your back, swimming alone does not allow it to get used to the stress of gravity. Though swimming is good for physical fitness, it’s not the best way to prevent back pain.

 

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Read An introduction to help your back
Read How to help your back effectively
Read The benefits of helping your back