Joseph Pilates stated “You’re only as young as your spine is flexible.” And he was right. Life is complicated and unpredictable. That’s what makes it interesting. To give yourself the best shot at avoiding injury, focus on a healthy spine.Because a healthy, flexible spine is less vulnerable to spontaneous and age related injury.
Vertebra provide a safe passage for spinal nerves
Today I am talking specifically about your lower back spine, known as the “lumbar spine.” The lumbar spine has 5 vertebrae just like the 5 tins of tuna I have in the studio. The vertebrae provide a “house” – a solid, protective structure, for your spinal cord and passage of spinal nerves. Spinal nerves branch off of the spinal cord through passage ways known as intervertebral foramen, providing signals to appropriate body parts (see Figure 1). The spinal nerves for the lower part of your pelvis and legs originate in the lumbar vertebrae.
Spinal nerves need unrestricted passageways
For spinal nerves to be able to work, they need to pass through the intervertebral passages smoothly, without any restrictions or blockages. When the nerve passage is restricted or blocked in the intervertebral foramen, the signal is partially or incorrectly sent. Unlucky you will experience the incorrect signals as pain or dysfunction in the muscles, joint or skin of the tissues served by that nerve.
Intervertebral discs help maintain the spinal nerve passages
Maintaining the intervertebral passages means that each vertebrae must be correctly spaced and aligned with the one above and the one below. While the intervertebral passages protect the spinal nerves, the intervertebral discs (purple area between vertebrae) are one of the keys to maintaining the proper distance between vertebrae. The intervertebral discs are shock absorbers - cushioning the repetitive impacts of walking, running, standing, sitting, jumping…you get the idea…every day of our life. As we age, the repetitive compression and friction of bone upon disc upon bone may cause our discs to lose some of their cushion, becoming less resilient and brittle. Although some of this compression is part of our body’s natural aging process, we can minimize the losses of intervertebral discs cushion.
Minimizing losses of intervertebral space
In addition to the cushion of the discs, the spinal muscles and other small muscles of the back are involved in supporting the vertebrae and maintaining safe passage for spinal nerves. Look at all the muscles connecting and supporting your vertebrae!
When any muscles of the back are injured or go into spasm, these spinal muscles must work harder to maintain safe passage for spinal nerves. When any back muscles get into deep trouble, the intervertebral passages may narrow sufficiently and “pinch” the spinal nerve.
What type of injury causes the passages to narrow?
I always say that a tight muscle is a weak muscle. Weak muscles cannot maintain the necessary intervertebral passage. Muscle spasm’s caused by injury mean that the muscles tighten and cannot loosen. Chronically tight back muscles, such as those in people working at desks, can narrow the intervertebral passages, restricting the passage of the spinal nerve. When this happens, the spinal nerve is “pinched” and you experience back pain.
What can you do to prevent lower back pain?
“Tighten your belt to support your low back”
We know that our joints allow flexibility and muscles allow mobility. Working your abdominals to be strong and flexible, and extending the spine in all different directions, articulating as much as possible, are excellent daily practices.
I want you to consciously remind yourself to “add length and space between your vertebrae” - like stacking the tuna tins – starting from the bottom (at L5) and working upwards to L1. Think tall - raise your eyebrows to elongate your entire spine. This takes the pressure off, and gives the discs a rest. Stretches out those little muscles. And reminds them to stay in alignment.
Maintaining the flexibility and mobility of the small muscles around each vertebrae will help maintain the cushion of your discs. It will ensure that you have the maximum space in your intervertebral passages for spinal nerves to travel through. It will lessen the chances of developing a pinched nerve. Ask anyone who has experienced a pinched nerve – this is a malady to avoid if possible.
Remember that movement creates lubrication in the joint, increases length of muscle thereby increasing your range of motion (ROM).