If you’ve never experienced back pain, consider yourself very lucky. Because it sucks. For one, it impacts every part of your day. Going for a run, working at your job, lifting your kid—even getting out of bed can be a hassle. Plus, it’s not something you’re able to overcome by sheer willpower.
“Back pain is unique because it tends not to be something you can get used to,” says Stuart M. McGill. author of Back Mechanic.
But luckily, there are a lot of ways to treat injuries and—better yet—get out ahead of the problem by building a back that’s strong, flexible, and able to withstand all that you ask it to do. We spoke with experts to learn about the basic architecture of the bones and muscles, what to do when something goes wrong, separating the good advice from the bad, and mapping out the kinds of body movements that’ll make you strong and flexible for the long haul. What we’re saying is: We’ve got your back.
First things first: Let’s go back to basics. The spine is a flexible road that has the crucial job of supporting the entire body. Here are the most basic structures.
The spine is made up of 33 individual bones that run from the base of your skull down to the tailbone. They protect the nerves that pass through the spinal canal. Muscles and ligaments also attach to your vertebrae, which helps your spine bear weight.
Gel-filled disks connect each vertebrae, acting as both glue and shock absorber. A slipped or herniated disk means that the inner part of the disk comes through the outer part. This can cause nerve root compression, which may result in pain as well as loss of sensation, strength, and reflex, says Norman Marcus, director of muscle pain research at the New York University School of Medicine. Herniated disks may be caused by a singular event, like a bad fall, but often the injury accumulates over many years, with something otherwise innocuous—swinging a golf club—being the final straw.
3. Cervical Spine
This contains the vertebrae that makes up your neck. Muscle strains are common, and they usually resolve themselves in a few weeks, says Andrew Hecht, chief of spine surgery at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. It could be whiplash from a car accident, a funny sleeping position, or cradling a phone receiver on your shoulder. Constantly looking down at your smartphone for hours at a time isn’t great, either, as it pulls the cervical spine around. Try to maintain a neutral neck as much as possible, with your chin slightly down.
4. Thoracic Spine
This segment of spine, right behind your rib cage, is the longest but least injury-prone. If you feel an ache in this area, it’s probably that your muscles are tired, possibly from a workout.
5. Lumbar Spine
This is your lower back, an area where pain is common, since Americans spend a lot of the day sitting, Marcus says. Other reasons include poor biomechanics—basically the way you move and lift—as well as posture. Chronic low back pain in older adults, however, could mean arthritis—degenerative wear and tear. And back pain as well as leg pain probably means you’ve got a disk bulge that’s pressing on a nerve.
Also known as the tailbone. Normally, people don’t have pain in this part of their spine unless they experience a fall or sit on a hard surface for a prolonged time.
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