Understanding the anatomy and inner workings of your spine will help you be mindful of how best to look after it as you go about your day-to-day life.
Your neck supports the weight of your head and protects the nerves that go from your brain to the rest of the body.
The cervical spine has seven vertebrae that get smaller the closer they get to the base of the skull. Only the top two segments rotate so you can turn your head.
Acute neck pain is most often caused by a muscle, ligament or tendon strain, e.g. from a sudden force or from straining the neck. These injuries usually heal with time and non-surgical treatments to alleviate the pain, such as ice/heat, medication, chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation etc.
If neck pain lasts longer than two weeks to three months, or if you experience mainly arm pain, numbness or tingling, there is often a specific anatomical problem in this area which needs to be addressed.
The Upper Back
The 12 vertebrae in your upper back make up the thoracic spine. The firm attachment of the rib cage at each level of the thoracic spine provides stability and structural support, allowing very little motion. This means that thoracic disc injuries are rare. However, irritation of the large back and shoulder muscles can be very painful.
The Lower Back
Your lumbar spine has the least structural support and endures the most strain, making it the most frequently injured area of the spine.
The movement in the lower spine is divided between five motion segments, although a disproportionate amount of the motion is in the lower segments (L4-L5 and L5-S1). Consequently, these two segments are the most likely to be injured. For example, a herniated disc in this area can cause pain and possibly numbness that radiates through the leg and down to the foot (sciatica).
Most episodes of lower back pain are caused by muscle strain. Even though this doesn’t sound like a serious injury, pain in the lower back can be severe.
Below your lumbar spine is a bone called the sacrum, which makes up the back part of the pelvis. This bone is shaped like a triangle that fits between the two halves of the pelvis, connecting the spine to the lower half of the body. The sacrum is connected to part of the pelvis (the iliac bones) by the sacroiliac joints. Pain here is often called sacroiliac joint dysfunction, and is more common in women than men.
The coccyx (tail bone) is at the very bottom of the spine. Pain here is called coccydynia and again, is more common in women than men.
The Intelligence and Life-Force of the Spine
From an energy point of view, life revolves around the spine. Our nervous system is the body’s information gatherer, storage centre and control system. Its function is to collect information about external conditions in relation to the body’s internal state, to analyse this information, and to initiate the proper response. The Central Nervous System (CNS) includes the brain and spinal cord, which is housed inside the spinal column. The Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) connects the CNS to other parts of the body and is composed of nerves that emanate from the spinal column. The skeletal alignment of our spine is key to us accessing the body’s energetic resources.
To unlock this energy we must balance the curves of the spine and lengthen them in two directions. The sacrum and tailbone move down, and the lumbar spine and everything above it extends up. It’s important to lengthen the spine, while maintaining all of its natural curves in order to pull the spinal column to its maximum length.
To visualize a healthy lengthening of the spine we need to understand the muscles involved in this action. The pelvic floor is an important yet often overlooked group of muscles. Energetically this muscle moves upward into the core of the body. The big gluteus maximus in the backside, is a muscle that wraps down the leg to extend it. Energetically it flows downward towards the ground. These muscles, the pelvic floor and gluteus maximus, have specific functions that work in opposition to each other. Unfortunately this functionality is undermined because we tend to overuse the gluteus maximus and under-use the pelvic floor, and the spine suffers as a result.
Overuse of the gluteal muscles tends to shut down energetic movement through the spine. In standing, the gluteus maximus should not be working. In walking it works a tiny bit to take the leg back, unless you are walking up hill or up a flight of stairs, which is when it really kicks into gear. Unfortunately our posture usually shifts the gluteus maximus into a different role. If your legs are underneath your pelvis, the gluteal muscles can do less. If the thighs begin to sink forward and the pelvis tucks under, as they do for most people, the quadriceps (the big thigh muscles) and the buttocks begin to work to try and provide stability. This is a false sense of stability, however, and results in the gluteal muscles gripping and its energy moving upwards. Releasing the glutes and engaging your pelvic floor creates the upward energy that allows the sacrum and the tail bone to move down.
Engaging the pelvic floor is a key part of the Pilates Method of course. We do this between every exhale and inhale in order to strengthen the pelvic floor and to fire up the trans abs, the deep abdominal muscles that stabilise the lower spine. Not sure how to engage the pelvic floor? Think of holding in your pee, gently engaging between the anus and the genitals. When you engage your pelvic floor, you should get a sense of movement at the base of the pelvis and a shift in the bones as well as the muscles. Your tail bone at the very base of the spine should move forward ever so slightly towards the pubis (the front of the pelvis) as the sacrum lengthens down.
To lengthen the spine effectively, we engage the pelvic floor, draw in the abdominals and extend from the back of the throat (hyoid bone) and the neck. This helps the spine lengthen up into its full extension at the top. When the pelvic floor engages, the sacrum and tail bone move down. When the abdominals are also engaged, the spine starts to lengthen upwards with the help of the erector spinae muscles in the back.
However, if the relationship between the buttocks and the pelvic floor is not harmonious the spine will only lengthen in one direction, usually from the lower back and above. This means that the nervous system’s access to everything below the lumbar spine is diminished.
To close, here’s Bjork doing weird and wonderful things with her skull…