The Amazing Complexity of The Human Spine

Although I adjust all the joints of the body (a benefit from my sports chiropractic background), I do spend the majority of my time working on patient’s spines. To a large extent, this is because most of the complaints come from this area. Like most chiropractors, headaches, neck pain, thoracic pain, low back pain are the majority of complaints that I see in practice. When one understands the amazing complexity of the spine and the daily stresses and strains that it undergoes, it is almost surprising that things don’t go wrong more often.

The spine is composed of 24 interlocking bones which are capped on top by the occiput (head) and at the bottom by the sacrum (part of the pelvis). Each bone is separated by a disc. The best way to think of discs is as small flexible spacers in between the bones of the spine. Each time we walk the impact from each step gets absorbed by the discs. Otherwise, each step would be extremely jarring to the body. The discs also allow for the flexibility of the spine which is, in turn, limited by the interlocking joints. The spine is further stabilized by ligaments that surround it and once again by muscles that surround the ligaments. The muscles, of course, allow the spine to move but they also provide stability to the spine. In fact, weakness in the core musculature, a group of muscles designed specifically to support the spine, are behind many of the pains that patients complain about. In cases such as this, in addition to realigning the vertebrae of the spine, I will recommend certain core exercises so as to strengthen the core muscles and give the spine greater stability.

The ideal spine, when seen from the back or the front, should be straight. When it is not straight due to an unlevel pelvis or misalignments of the positions of the vertebrae it becomes my job to adjust the spine so as to bring it back into alignment as much as possible.

When seen from the side, however, the spine should have three sets of curves. The neck or cervical curve should be ideally shaped such that the concave side of that area is toward the back with the head balanced over the shoulders. The thoracic or mid back curve should be convex toward the back. Then the lumbar or low back curve should, like the neck, be concave toward the back. This “S” shaped design gives the spine the best balance of flexibility and stability. Using computers it is been calculated that the ideal curve of the spine should be 60° on each of the three curves. That is precisely what the spine is shaped in the ideal. In the ideal, because life takes its toll. Auto accidents, hours over the computer or desk all will result in changes to the shape of these curves. This will, in turn, put abnormal stresses on the spine and create pain and dysfunction.

While I cannot return a spine that has undergone years of misalignment and degeneration to the perfect state it once was, getting the spine closer to its ideal will result in less pain and better function going forward.