Movement of the human body is like a symphony: The amount of coordination, efficiency and smoothness that is the most simple of movements is astonishingly complex and interesting. Your spine is the center of movement, but can also be the center of pain for many people. The Cleveland Clinic reported this year that four out of five Americans will suffer from back pain during their life. Correct exercise and proper ergonomics for activities of daily living are at the top of the hit list for keeping this incredible organ safe and healthy for life.

The spine is a column of interconnected puzzle pieces: bones, muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments and a multitude of joints woven together as the pillar of support and movement for the entire body to function. The spinal column consists of 33 vertebrae:

  • 7 cervical (neck)
  • 12 thoracic (upper torso)
  • 5 lumbar (lower back)
  • 5 sacral (pelvis)
  • 4 coccyx (tailbone)

The vertebrae of the sacrum and coccyx appear as one bone as they fuse together before birth. The spine has three natural curves that create the S-shape to the spine providing strength and allows it to act like a spring. With the three curves in proper alignment this optimal position is called neutral spine.

Maintaining a neutral spine distributes body weight evenly — protecting the individual parts from stress, creating efficient movement and giving you a healthier appearance. As in a symphony the musculature of the spine works in a coordinated effort to apply tension to maintain curvature and erect posture. When this orchestra becomes “out of tune” or the different instrumental sections aren’t balanced, there is potential for misalignment of the spine with potential long term consequences.

The cervical spine is responsible for holding up the weight of the head. When in normal position over the thoracic spine the weight of a human head is approximately 8-12 pounds. Misalignment of the cervical spine can be caused by poor posture habits, head placement while looking at computer or cell phone screens, and the improper positioning of a backpack. Generally this can cause a forward head posture, which has trickle down effects to the rest of the spine. The weight of the head in relation to the pressure it places on the spine can increase by four times.

The thoracic spine is responsible for holding the rib cage to protect the internal organs. Forward head posture can have a negative effect on the curvature of the thoracic spine, excessive forward reaching or bending in daily activities or exercise can possibly increase this curve.

The lumbar spine is responsible for holding the body’s weight hence the greater curve in the lower back. Not too much to ask! Sitting or standing in one position for long periods of time, incorrect lifting, and standing on uneven surfaces can begin to cause malalignment in this area.

Ergonomics, the study of people’s efficiency in their work environment looks at making the activities one would do in their job the most safe and efficient to their overall health. Now enter the yearlong work-at-home pandemic to make a mess of the science of ergonomics. In 2020 physicians and chiropractors saw more back pain problems than other years. And the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) names 2021 as the Global Year About Back Pain. IASP points out that exercise trumps ergonomic fixes: lumbar supports, lifting devices, job rotations and modifications in preventing back pain.

If you have back pain start with your medical provider or physical therapist, hire a trainer, join a gym, swim at the pool, walk — and focus on your spine.

Robin Gaudette is the aquatics wellness coordinator at the Redmond Area Park and Recreation District. Contact her at robin.gaudette@raprd.org.

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