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Back & Spine Overview
Anatomy of the Spine
Your spinal column consists of 25 bones, called vertebrae, that are divided into four sections: cervical spine (7 vertebrae), thoracic spine (12 vertebrae), lumbar spine (5 vertebrae), and sacrum (fusion of 5 sacral vertebrae), that extend down to your pelvis. Between the vertebrae are discs of soft tissue. The vertebrae join together like links in a chain, providing support for your head and body, while the discs act as stabilizing cushions, or "shock absorbers." In addition to providing support, the spine encloses and protects a cylinder of nerve tissues called the spinal cord. The spinal cord is surrounded by a part of the vertebrae, creating a channel called the spinal canal.
Your spinal cord and nerves send information from your brain to your arms and legs, and vice versa. Spinal nerves and the spinal cord are responsible for common movements such as holding objects, walking, lifting, sitting, running, and jumping.
Major Causes of Back Pain
Lower back pain is among the most common reasons for patients to visit a doctor, especially a spine specialist. In most cases, lower back pain comes from common muscle strain, or a “pulled muscle.” In these instances, patients may experience a sharp, pulling pain that goes across the lower back, as well as soreness, tightness, and cramps. Fortunately, most patients with a muscle strain get better with rest, ice, anti-inflammatory medications, and physical therapy.
Sometimes, however, back pain is a sign that something more serious is going on with the bones, discs, and nerves in the spine.
- Lumbar disc herniation: Also known as a “slipped disc.” May cause back pain and pain that radiates down the leg with numbness, tingling, cramping, and burning.
- Lumbar degenerative disc disease: The wearing down of the “shock absorbers” (intervertebral discs) between the bones in the lower spine, which may lead to severe pain in the lower back and buttocks.
- Arthritis: When inflammmation occurs in the joints where two vertebrae meet and move in the lower back, it can cause significant lower back pain that often leads to difficulty walking long distances.
- Spinal stenosis: A degenerative spinal disease that causes the narrowing of the spinal canal. This narrowing causes pressure on the nerves and can cause pain or other symptoms like muscle weakness or numbness.
- Spinal instability: Abnormal or too much motion that occurs between two bones in the spine that may cause severe back pain.
- Spondylolisthesis: A condition in which one vertebra slips forward in relation to the vertebra below it.
Disclaimer: This content is for educational purposes only and does not replace having a conversation with your doctor.