Backstory: Understanding Your Spine in No Time
By Dr. Molly Casey
Is my spine supposed to be straight or curved? What’s the space between my vertebrae? Does this look normal? As a doctor of chiropractic at The Joint, these are common questions I receive from patients when they bring in X-rays for me to review. Though these X-rays are taken elsewhere, often times the patient isn’t educated on what they are seeing. Generally, the questions I get asked come with a certain degree of concern simply because of the patient’s lack of knowledge. So, just what is your spine supposed to look like?
I was thinking back to the time I was learning to drive and how I had to learn the basics of the machine I was operating -- a car. The ignition, seat belts, gas tank, type of gas, the location of the oil stick, etc., were all part of this incredible collection of parts I was responsible for maintaining. I also thought about the first time I really heard the basics of the human spine; it wasn’t until I was learning about it in chiropractic college. It’s sad that the basics of the structure that supports our master communication system, the system through which we live our entire lives, is not taught as a foundation of health until we are older and much more set in our ways.
Knowledge, when applied, is power. Let me provide a bit of insight into the basics of your spine so you can apply the knowledge of properly caring for your main machine, your body.
The fully developed spine is comprised of 24 moveable bones called vertebrae. They weigh approximately six to eight ounces each and support the weight of our bodies. The vertebrae are grouped together into different sections of the spine. The cervical spine consists of seven vertebrae and we call this area the neck. The thoracic spine consists of 12 vertebrae, an area otherwise known as the mid-back. What you call your low back is the lumbar spine and it consists of five moveable vertebrae. In addition to the 24 moveable bones, there are nine lower vertebrae that are fused together during the growing process. “Tailbone” is the name we’ve given to these fused bones at the bottom. When a subluxation (joint dysfunction) is present in the spine, it’s because the bones have become misaligned or restricted and are not moving through their full range of motion.
Spinal discs are the packaged material that separate the bones from each other. The discs are primarily made up of water along with a combination of strong connective tissues which hold one vertebra to the next. The disc is made up of a tough outer layer called the “annulus fibrosus” and a gel-like center called the “nucleus pulposus.” The largest misconception about spinal discs is that they are the cushion of the spine -- this is not true. The discs are actually the axis of rotation -- the point around which all your movement takes place -- flexion, extension, rotation and so on.
When looking at a healthy spine from a frontal view, there should be no curves. You want straight lines and equal alignment of the iliac bones (what we call our hip bones). When looking at a healthy spine from a side view, there should be three curves -- a cervical lordotic curve, a thoracic kyphotic curve, and a lumbar lordotic curve. These curves offer the spring and flexibility to the spine; they are the cushion, not the discs. A healthy spine requires that all three curves are present and fully intact.
There are 31 pairs of spinal nerves that exit your spine. These nerves are attached to the spinal cord and they carry information back and forth between the brain and every single cell in your body. When you have a subluxation (misalignment/restriction of the spinal joints), there is interference with your master control system, the nervous system. Most often the interference occurs at this level with the spinal nerves.
I find that when patients are educated about the basics of the spine, they can more easily grasp the importance of maintaining it. It simply makes sense at that point: They understand that the oil in the car must be changed because, if it isn’t, the engine will eventually stop running. So, generally, people get the oil changed. Well, same goes for getting the spine checked. Getting adjusted helps keep the bones moving properly, the discs hydrated and plump, the curves intact and the holes where the spinal nerves exit as wide open as possible. Not maintaining a healthy spine and not getting regular chiropractic adjustments may cause spinal degeneration, narrowing of spaces that should be open, decreased mobility, pain, poor health and low quality of life. We hope to see you at The Joint Chiropractic soon!
Dr. Molly Casey is a Doctor of Chiropractic who practices in the Los Angeles area. She works twice a week at The Joint Chiropractic in Glendale, CA.