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01 May 2006

Your back

You tend to forget about it because you don’t actually see it that often, but your back is the mainstay of the body.

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You tend to forget about it because you don’t actually see it that often, but your back is the mainstay of the body, the core of your strength.

What is the back exactly?
The central feature of the back is the backbone or spine, specifically the section from the top of your buttocks to the back of your neck and shoulders. The skull, ribs, pelvis and limbs are attached to it.

The spine consists of 33 bony segments, the vertebrae. Between these lie the discs: tough, spongy "cushions" that act as shock absorbers for the vertebrae and give the spine flexibility. Strong elastic ligaments hold the vertebrae and discs firmly together in a column. Muscles attach to the vertebrae by fibrous connections called tendons. The complex layers of back muscle contract to move your back and upper body. The back's system of bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and nerves work together to bear the weight of your body and the loads you carry.

The spine also protects the spinal cord, which runs down through a canal formed by the vertebrae. Nerves from the spinal cord branch out and leave the spine through spaces between the vertebrae at the levels of the discs.

Watch your back
Back pain is one of the negatives associated with walking on two legs. For animals on all fours, the vertebrae and the discs between them don’t get nearly as much compression and wear and tear. As a result, back pain in humans is second only to headache as the most common location of pain.

The commonest back problem by far is lower back, or lower lumbar, pain. This is because the lower back bears the weight of the upper body, and it also twists and bends more than the upper back, making it more prone to injury. Thanks to the fruits of modern life – computers, TV, DVD and plentiful food – back problems now affect about half of all adults in the western world.

A couch-potato life means flabby muscles that don’t support your back properly, slouching and slumping, which puts pressure on the vertebrae, while excess weight (especially that beer belly), compresses the spine and pulls the lower back too far forward, further compressing the lumbar vertebrae.

What is a slipped disc exactly?
A slipped disc is not really ‘slipped’; it’s more correctly called a ‘herniated’ disc. Wear and tear or strain that compresses and stresses the spinal discs may cause one to bulge or rupture (herniate). The disc's gooey filling protrudes and presses against sensitive nerves from the spinal cord. If that happens, you’ll likely feel pain in your lower back or in one leg. This leg pain is called sciatica because the sciatic nerve, a large nerve that runs down the leg, leaves the spinal cord from between the vertebrae in the lower lumbar region, and a slipped disc can press on it.

What you can do for your back
Most back pain can be prevented or greatly alleviated by treating your back with a little common decency:

Stand – and sit – up straight! Countless teachers bellowing this at you in class were right. Slouching means putting extra pressure on those long-suffering vertebrae; when you stand and sit properly your back muscles are doing their work and easing the pressure. It makes you look a teeny bit taller too.

Maintain the S-bend. The spine has a natural curve (it’s not supposed to be completely straight) that gives the back its shape when you’re standing upright but in a neutral, relaxed position. The curve is slight S-shape, somewhat concave in the upper back and somewhat concave in the lower back. Try keeping the back in this position when you can. Avoid twisting and bending your back – especially if you’re about to pick up a load – and staying in awkward positions for long periods.

Move Regular exercise helps keep your muscles strong, your tendons, ligaments and joints flexible, and your weight in check – all of which lower your risk for back problems. And exercises that target the back specifically help ease back pain and improve back function. But don’t go crazy; be gentle if you’re starting a new regime after a long stint on the couch. And no matter how fit you are, always warm up and stretch before a workout. Stretch slowly without bouncing and gradually increase the stretch.

Take a break.Take frequent beaks from any position – especially sitting, which puts the most strain on your back. This is also a good time to stretch.

Did you know?

  • The skin on your back is the thickest, with the fewest nerve endings, of the skin on the torso.
  • Really bad pain in the lower back, particularly if it isn’t eased by movement of posture change, might not be a back problem at all: it might be a kidney stone.
  • The reason it’s possible for the doctor to listen to your lungs through your back is because they extend to the back of the ribcage.
  • In only 2% of cases of back pain, is surgery necessary.
  • Truck drivers often suffer from back pain, because they sit for long periods and have to endure continuous vibration.
  • If you’re a cyclist, you may experience back pain, which can often be remedied by adjusting the angle of the bicycle seat.
 
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