Before discussing conditions that affect the spine, it is important to first understand the spine anatomy and structure in humans.
The vertebral column, also called the backbone, is made up of 24 vertebral bodies in adults. Between each vertebral body, there is a softer structure that offers a cushioning effect to the bones, called a spinal disc.
At the back of each vertebral segment, there are bone formations called processes, pedicles and lamina. Together they are form a circular bone structure that is referred to as the spinal arch, and it is attached to the back of each vertebra. The spinal arch allows for the formation of a hollow canal known as the vertebral foramen, vertebral canal, or simply the spinal canal. The spinal cord, which passes through this canal, connects the brain to spinal nerves, and consequently to other parts of the body.
The spinal column is also split into three main segments, called the cervical spine, thoracic spine and cervical spine. At the top, the cervical vertebrae connect to the base of the skull at the back, while at the bottom the lumbar vertebrae connect to the sacrum. Each one of these sections presents specific curvatures that allow for flexible column motions to be performed.
Because of the many functions that it serves, it is often prone to physical and age-related stressors that may alter its structure and lead to complications. Aging, as well as several spinal conditions and certain activities can wear it down over time, or affect the curvature of the spine, leading to pain and stiffness.
Conditions that Can Affect the Spinal Column
Some conditions and factors that tend to affect the spinal column include:
These changes tend to occur due to aging, or better said, due to the constant use of our spine over our lifetime. Physical stressors placed upon the spine through daily activities tend to accumulate and lead to a gradual wear and tear of the spine. Additionally, as we age, bones tend to become weaker, especially in women, leading to an increase in spinal degeneration at the level of the vertebrae, joints and discs.
This is an Inflammatory condition that affects the joints of the body. It tends to start in the lower spine and spread to other joints of the body, causing severe pain as the condition progresses, as well as loss of spinal mobility and deformity of the spine. Although there is no cure for this condition and no possibility to reverse it, there are various options to manage the pain that occurs as a result.
Spondylolisthesis can be described as the process where a vertebral body (singular bone segment of the spinal column) slips out of its anatomic space. The severity of the slippage can vary from person to person, but if it happens to pinch a nerve root, or even the spinal cord, it can lead to pain in the region of the spine that is affected.
Spondylolysis is the name given to the fracture of the pars interarticularis, a part of a spinal joint that joins spinal facets to the vertebral column itself. If a fracture may be present, seek professional medical advice and immediate treatment.
Repeated use of our spine throughout the years, as well as bad posture practices that strain our backs, and other activities that place pressure on our spine can lead to compression of the vertebral column. This causes that the backbone and (some of) its segments to be pressed down. In turn, they can also affect nerve roots that branch out through gaps that exist between each vertebra, pinching them, and ultimately causing pain.
Compression of the spine, although tends to be one of the most common factors that affect the spine, can be effectively managed, treated, or even reversed with the right treatment – which is decompression therapy.
Although most of these conditions cannot be treated or reversed, most physical symptoms that they exhibit can be managed effectively in order to minimise the impact they have on a person’s life.
However, as most of these approaches consist of steps that you can take at home, it is recommended that you seek a diagnosis from a qualified healthcare professional, preferably from a spinal specialist, to discover the exact cause of the pain and rule out potentially life-threatening or dangerous conditions (such as spine fractures) before attempting any self-treatment.
Only after obtaining a diagnosis should you proceed to the pain management phase. That being said, some pain management options include:
- Pain relievers to temporarily reduce inflammation and pain.
- Hot or cold packs applied to the painful area to reduce pain and inflammation locally and to relax the muscles.
- Physical therapy to improve the patient’s spinal mobility, a practice which may be particularly useful for people suffering from Ankylosing Spondylitis or degenerative spine changes that restrict spinal mobility.
- Decompression therapy to stretch out, relax and mobilise the spine to reduce pain and stiffness.