The low back is comprised of five lumbar vertebrae and the soft tissue that supports them — namely the discs, cartilage, ligaments, muscles and tendons. There are built-in shock and friction absorbers in the form of spongy discs, and soft cartilage which prevent the vertebrae and the facet joints thereof, from rubbing together, while the ligaments and muscles keep the vertebrae properly aligned.
It has been stated with some confidence that the low back is the most vulnerable area of the body to injury and the role of the supportive muscles cannot be overstated.
The backbone is protective for the spinal cord with its many spinal nerves. Usually when people experience back problems, the pain they feel is referred pain that comes from a herniated disc that squeezes out from between two vertebrae.
The other source of pain is a spur or arthritis in a facet joint. Both conditions press on and irritate spinal nerves, and while they can result in serious consequences including surgery, much can be done to reverse the course and avoid that outcome.
Here are the major weak links that might lead up to experiencing low back pain and running the gamut with it. First, the risk factors that are controllable: Poor aerobic conditioning, being overweight, postural and muscular imbalances, nutritional deficiencies, old injuries, re-injuries because of incomplete rehabilitation, medication camouflage, or undertaking strenuous recreation before complete healing.
Lastly, some risk factors that you may not be able to change but at least you can work with: aging effects, structural defects and genetic predisposition.
We all age in a way that is uniquely our own. Our own lifestyle contributes to whether it is good experience or an experience that is fraught with difficulty. Most of us spend huge quantities of our time being sedentary or on our feet but not moving around much.
Backs like to move! Low back muscle weakness is very common. This is especially true of the lumbar extensor muscles. Individuals who have suffered low back pain have been shown to have significant weakness and atrophy of these muscles that serve as a double support system, running parallel on each side of the vertebrae. The lower back extensor muscles must specifically be trained in order to be strong.
As we age, the bones degenerate and we lose calcium if we do nothing to prevent that occurrence. Osteopenia, the stage before osteoporosis is reversible by following good nutritional practices, using supplements and exercising with weight-bearing activities.
Posture is one of those important concepts that your mother told you was important … you know now how right she was about so many other things! An aligned frame is ideal for movement, and load bearing; it fatigues less easily and is less susceptible to injury.
Perfect posture means that heels, knees, pelvis, neck and head are directly aligned with each other. This bears constant attention especially as it is easy to let the posture slip especially when we are tired. I’ve caught myself in the mirror and been appalled at how slouched I can get when tired.
Disc degeneration starts to occur usually around age thirty. A disc is like a grape or one of those hard candies with the gooey centers and harder sides. By the time we hit 40 years of age, 30 to 40 percent of us have bulging or compressed discs or degenerated discs without necessarily knowing about it. The trouble starts when the whole support system breaks down and pressure is exerted on the nerves.
Although 90 percent of people with their first occurrence of low pain will be asymptomatic within three months, 40 to 60 percent of them will have recurring episodes.
Don’t let this happen to you! The yoga masters say you are as young as your spine. Since yoga is one of the most ancient modalities of movement, and still going stronger than ever, I’m going to bet they have some wisdom there.
It is a simple case of move it or lose it. Aloha!
Dr. Jane Riley, Ed.D., is a certified personal fitness trainer; nutritional adviser, behavior change specialist and orthopedic exercisespecialist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 212-8119 cell/text and janerileyfitness.com