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The spine (or vertebral column) extends from the skull to the pelvis. It has two very important jobs: to support the weight of the body and to protect the spinal cord and nerves.
The spine is formed by thirty-three individual vertebrae and is divided into five sections:
- 7 cervical vertebrae (immediately below the skull);
- 12 thoracic vertebrae (the middle segment);
- 5 lumbar vertebrae (the lower back where the spine curves inward);
- 5 sacral vertebrae (at the inferior end of the spine); and,
- 4 coccyx (including the tailbone) vertebrae.
The vertebrae of the sacrum and coccyx fuse in adulthood.
The total length of the spinal column in an adult is approximately 70-72 cm.
Injury and Treatment Options to the Bones of the Spine
The vertebrae can break, just like any other bone.
Fractures are usually due to specific health conditions such as osteoporosis (a condition which weakens the bones) — or from injury (a hard fall, for instance, or excessive pressure placed on the spine.)
When a bone in the spine collapses, it is called a vertebral compression fracture.
Treatment will vary, depending on the condition that caused the problem in the first place and the severity of the injury. Some possible treatments may include:
- wearing a brace for 6 to 10 weeks if the fracture was due to an injury;
- surgery to join spine bones together or to relieve pressure on a nerve;
- resting for as long as necessary for healing to take place; or,
- pain medications to help during the worst of the crisis.
Most compression fractures due to injury heal in 8 to 10 weeks with proper rest, wearing of a brace, and/or the use of pain medicines. However, recovery can take much longer if surgery was done.
As we age, back problems can become very real and very serious — even incapacitating. When you are young, you don't think about what might happen to your back. But taking care of it when you're young will help avoid some problems later.
There are some simple things you can do to help your spine stay healthy:
- make sure your posture is correct;
- avoid excessive bending at the waist;
- pick up a heavy object using your lower back and strong legs.
Spinal Cord Injuries and Treatments
Spinal cord injuries occur usually from physical trauma — anything from car accidents to a fall or sports injuries. However, some people don't realize that it can also result from infection, insuffucient blood flow, or pressure from a tumor.
As a result of the injury, normal function of the spine is usually impaired, either temporarily or permanently. These injuries are described at various levels of disability — from incomplete to a total loss of sensation and function.
Most people know immediately after a fall or accident that they have hurt their spine, although symptoms vary. The prognosis depends on the location and severity of the damage along the spinal cord. Full recovery can occur, but it can lead to permanent quadriplegia in injuries at the level of the neck, and paraplegia in lower injuries.
Treatment begins with stabilizing the spine and controlling inflammation to prevent further damage. Other treatments can include:
- bed rest;
- long-term physical therapy;
- long-term occupational therapy; and/or,
- counselling to deal with the trauma of the original incident.
In addition, complications can occur after the injury, even during treatment:
- pressure sores;
- muscle atrophy; and/or
- respiratory problems.
Keeping the Spine Strong
There are some specific exercises that may help to strengthen your spine. Always talk to your doctor before trying any new exercise or stretch. Make sure it is all right for you to do it.
Here are two exercises for the neck which are recommended by the National Osteoporosis Foundation:
Neck Press: Lie on your back with a small, soft pillow under your neck — this will allow your spine to be in a neutral position. Push your head down firmly. Keep your chin tucked in and your head facing upward. Hold for 5 counts. Then relax for 5 counts. Repeat 10 times or until your neck muscles tire.
Chest Raises from a Prone Position: Lie down on a carpeted floor or on a yoga mat. Place arms to your side with palms down. Lift head and chest and continue to look straight down. Hold for 5 counts. Then relax and repeat as many times as possible. NOTE: This is a difficult exercise. Not everyone will be able to do this one.
There are other activities that you can do to help strengthen your spine. They include:
- Swimming; or
- Water Walking.
A final word of caution about exercising your spine:
- Before starting any exercise regimen or activity, talk to your doctor. Your doctor is your best resource for information and recommendations.
- In general, avoid activities that put too much stress on your spine (contact sports, for example).
- And, finally, the saying "no pain, no gain" doesn't apply. You want to take good care of your spine and strengthen the muscles that support it. You aren't trying to become an Olympic champion. Pay attention to your body's signals, and if your pain increases or if you notice new pain, stop and ask for assistance.
Other articles about bones:
- Bones of the Hands and Feet
- Dem Bones Dem Bones: The Skeleton
- The Ribs
- Three Arm Bones: the humerus, the radius, and the ulna
- Three Leg Bones: The femur, the tibia, and the fibula
Other related articles:
- Exercise and Osteoporosis
- After a Fall
- Back Problems
- Falling: Is there a way to fall to minimize injury?
I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.
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