Spine health

Conquering back pain

Are you struggling with back pain? Maybe it's just a dull ache that won't go away, or perhaps it's so severe that it disrupts your daily activities. It's an all-too-common issue that most of us will face at some point in our lives. Whether you are sitting long hours in an office, spending your days doing physical and demanding labor, or simply just feeling the effects of aging, back pain seems almost inevitable. But why is it so common?

Our spine is the backbone of our body, both literally and figuratively! This incredible structure holds us together and enables every movement we make. It facilitates all the simple actions like walking, bending, and twisting, and it also allows us to engage in more strenuous activities like lifting heavy objects, carrying our children, and being able to enjoy more energetic activities like climbing and dancing.

What are the main functions of the spine?

The spine has 3 critical functions:

  1. To give the body shape and structure
  2. To allow movement and flexibility
  3. To protect the spinal cord that houses nerves which connect the brain to the rest of the body.

Given its role in virtually every aspect of daily life, the spine is especially vulnerable to wear and tear, injuries, and diseases. Without a healthy spine, our ability to move freely would be drastically reduced, turning everyday activities into uncomfortable or painful challenges. Chronic back pain and restricted movement can severely impact our quality of life. That's why keeping our spine healthy isn't just an option, it's a necessity for staying mobile, reducing pain, and living an active, happy life.

Exploring the spine: A look at the spinal components and what they do

The spine is a marvel of biological engineering, featuring a complex and intricately designed structure made up of several key components. All these components work together in harmony to provide both stability and flexibility to your body.

  • Vertebrae: These are the bones stacked on top of each other that form the spinal column. Soft pads known as intervertebral discs are located between each vertebra.
  • Intervertebral discs: These discs act as cushions between the vertebrae. Each disc has a gel-like center, which helps absorb shock and enables the spine to bend and flex.
  • Facet joints: These joints connect the vertebrae and enable spinal flexibility while providing stability and controlling motion.
  • Soft tissue: This category includes muscles, ligaments, and tendons that support the spine. These tissues aid movement, provide strength, and help maintain the spine's structure.
  • Spinal cord: An essential part of the nervous system, the spinal cord is enclosed within the spine and transmits signals between the brain and the body.
  • Nerves: Branching from the spinal cord, nerves spread throughout the body, controlling muscle movements and relaying sensory information like touch, pain, and temperature to the brain.

How the spine is divided: Identifying the area of discomfort

Understanding the segments of the spine helps in identifying where problems might occur:

  • Cervical spine: Comprises the first seven vertebrae from the neck. It supports the head and allows a wide range of head movement.
  • Thoracic spine: Includes twelve vertebrae that are connected to the rib cage. It provides stability and protects the upper body organs.
  • Lumbar spine: The lower five vertebrae, which bear the bulk of the body's weight and are the most common region for back pain.
  • Sacral and coccygeal spine: These sections of your spine are located at the bottom. They involve the pelvis bones and the tailbone, providing attachment points for the ligaments and muscles in the lower back and pelvic area.

Some common spinal conditions that can be detected with MRI

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a powerful imaging tool that is often considered the best choice for viewing detailed internal structures of the spine. Unlike X-rays and CT scans, which use radiation, MRI uses strong magnets and radio waves to generate high quality, precise images. This technology allows doctors to see the soft tissues, bones, and nerves of the spine with exceptional clarity.

Here are some common spinal issues that MRI can identify:

  • Herniated discs: When the soft center of a spinal disc bulges, protrudes, extrudes or even extends outside the normal confines of the disc. This can cause pain either directly from the disc or from pressure on nearby nerves, which might also result in numbness. MRI is great at showing these disc problems and how they affect nearby nerves.
  • Degenerative disc disease: This condition happens as discs, which act as cushions between the vertebrae, wear down over time. MRI can show the discs drying out, shrinking, or changing in other ways that cause pain.
  • Spinal stenosis: This occurs when the spaces within the spine narrow, squeezing the spinal cord or nerves. It may cause pain and numbness, especially in the arms and legs. MRI can show where the spine is narrowing.
  • Spinal tumors: Tumors can grow on the bones, in the spinal cord, or in the space around it. MRI can find these tumors, show exactly where they are, and how big they are.
  • Spinal infections: MRI's can detect infections that can affect the bones, discs, or the area around the spinal cord.
  • Spinal fractures: If the spine is injured from a fall or accident, MRI can find small or large fractures and see if there's any injury to the spinal cord or nerves.
  • Inflammatory diseases: Conditions that lead to an accumulation of inflammatory cells in the spine, like ankylosing spondylitis, make the spine stiff and painful. MRI is great at spotting inflammation and checking if the vertebrae are beginning to fuse together.
  • Spinal curvatures: Abnormal curvatures of the spine, such as scoliosis (a sideways curve) or kyphosis (a forward rounding of the back), can lead to pain and posture issues. MRI is effective in assessing the degree of curvature and identifying any associated complications like compression of nerves or the spinal cord.

When to consider an MRI: Signs and symptoms to watch for

  • Persistent or severe pain is the most common symptom prompting further investigation. If you have back pain that doesn't improve with rest or standard treatments over a few weeks, or if the pain is severe and debilitating, an MRI can help identify the underlying cause.
  • Nerve symptoms that cause tingling, numbness, or weakness extending into the arms or legs can indicate nerve compression or damage. MRI can look at nerve roots and assess if they are being impinged by herniated discs, bone spurs, or other spinal abnormalities.
  • If you experience new or worsening symptoms following an injury such as a fall or car accident, an MRI can provide a detailed view of any spinal damage that may have occurred.
  • Loss of motor skills or coordination, like difficulty walking or using your hands, difficulty with bowel or bladder function, or progressive weakness in the legs or arms, could be signs of spinal cord compression or other serious neurological conditions.
  • If you've been diagnosed with a spinal condition like osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, or spinal stenosis, and your symptoms suddenly change or worsen, an MRI can evaluate the progression of the disease and guide potential treatment adjustments.

Preventative MRI: Spinal screening scans and their benefits

Preventative MRI scans are an invaluable tool for maintaining spinal health and catching potential issues before they become serious problems. These scans can be especially beneficial for individuals at higher risk of developing spinal conditions due to factors such as age, occupation, or pre-existing health issues.

Check out our In-depth spine scan

6 tips for keeping back pain away

Taking care of your spine is always the first step and can prevent many issues.

Here are 6 helpful tips:

  1. Exercise regularly: Do activities that strengthen the back and core muscles, such as swimming, walking, and yoga.

  2. Maintain good posture: Sit and stand with your back straight and shoulders back to reduce the strain on your spine.

  3. Lift properly: Use your legs to lift heavy objects, not your back, to avoid injury.

  4. Stay active: Avoid prolonged periods of sitting or inactivity to keep your spine flexible and healthy.

  5. Healthy diet: Eat a balanced diet rich in calcium and vitamin D, to support bone health.

  6. Quit smoking: Smoking can accelerate degenerative disc disease, so quitting can improve spine health.

By understanding the components and functions of the spine, recognizing common conditions, and knowing when to seek medical help, you can take proactive steps to maintain a healthy spine and enjoy a pain-free, active life.