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credit: Steven Depolo

credit: Steven Depolo

You’ve probably heard physical therapists, chiropractors, and other bodyworkers say that the spine is the key to living pain free—and they’re right. A healthy spine, coupled with a healthy nervous system, is crucial in terms of maintaining whole body health. A strong spine can also make you look taller and thinner, and feel more powerful.

On the other hand, though, your spine in many ways is the command center for your physical self—it’s connected to so many other systems in your body that that slightest change to that equilibrium can lead to problems. Rounded shoulders and discomfort are frequently the first noticeable issues, but by no means are they the only problems. Thankfully, simply knowing your way around your spine can help avoid many of them.

Your spine has three distinct parts, each with different functions and different methods of self-care. So consider this a guide to that part of yourself you never see, but could never do without.

The cervical spine: the neck

Vertebrae

Starting with C1 and C2 (also known as the atlas and axis) at the base of the skull, the seven cervical vertebrae hold up the head and allow it to flex and turn. The bones here are small but sturdy, designed to glide smoothly on top of each other as you nod or look from left to right.

Care: Most cervical rotation occurs between the atlas and axis, which are positioned roughly even with the roof of your mouth and teeth. Improper rotation here is the root of many neck issues, so feel what happens as you turn your head. Is that rotation smooth, or can you feel grinding or friction? Can you adjust your posture to make it more smooth?

Muscles

The muscles that control the cervical vertebrae are intricately attached to the base of the skull and the shoulder blades. The muscles are mostly long and thin (with the exception of the trapezius), and prone to getting overstretched.

Care: These muscles respond well to light massage and gentle stretches—anything with a light touch.

Nerves

The nerves that emerge from between the cervical vertebrae control the eyes, muscles of the face, the neck, shoulders, arms, esophagus, heart and lungs. (If you took anatomy, you’ll remember the rhyme “C3, 4, 5, keeps the diaphragm alive.”)

Care: In the short area above your collarbone, you’ll find the nerves that control many of your daily functions, including chewing, swallowing, reaching, grabbing, typing, and breathing. Not only can obstruction or tightness here cause pain, but it can lead to reduced coordination and muscle weakness in the arms. Yoga, chiropractic adjustment, and other body work can help align muscle and bone to allow nerves to travel from spine to the extremities unimpeded.

The thoracic spine: the mid-back

Vertebrae

Below the cervical spine are the twelve thoracic vertebrae, each with 2 ribs branching out in either direction. Most of our spinal activity should happen in the thoracic spine region, though it rarely does—our modern lifestyle encourages lumbar motion (the lower back) over thoracic engagement, which can lead to lower back pain and weakness.

Care: Lie on your back with your knees in the air and roll up and down over a foam roller, pausing at areas that seem stuck or imbalanced. Take your time—the longer you pause, the more your connective tissues can relax. (We know this can get uncomfortable, but it helps.)

Muscles

The ribs are connected by the intercostal muscles, thin flexible sheets that help us take deeper breaths. They also prevent us from using the muscles of the neck to inflate our lung. Weird, right?

Care: Side-stretches, back bends, and deep breathing exercises all work to keep your intercostals strong and flexible, which can help improve both endurance and posture.

Nerves

The thoracic nerves are connected to your organs: the lungs, heart, liver, pancreas, kidneys, gall bladder, and major muscles of the abs and back.

Care: Again, chiropractic work can help here. Practitioners are specially trained to adjust the spine and ribs for peak alignment—if nerves are impinged here, it can slow organ function, resulting in poor digestion.

The lumbar spine: the lower back

Vertebrae

The lumbar spine comprises five large dense vertebrae that are meant to support the body’s weight and provide a stable base for the torso. At the same time, it’s also highly flexible, allowing mobility in many different directions. Along with the sacrum, these vertebrae are connected to the pelvis by a series of thick ligaments.

Care: When seated, check to see if your sits bones are getting equal weight. If not, can you relax your lower back to make the weight more even?

Muscles

The muscles attached to the lower spine angle downward, connecting to the hips and upper legs.

Care: If you sit for long periods of time, these are the muscles that suffer the most: Some muscles are overstretched, while others locked in a contracted state. This, as you might imagine, is bad. Make sure that you stretch your legs in every direction, not just forward and backwards. Working the hip flexors and adductors give the spine side-to-side strength and flexibility.

Nerves

The nerves of the lumbar spine power the deep core muscles, hip muscles, bladder, reproductive organs, and glutes and legs.

Care: Alignment here can allow the nerves to work properly, and can improve leg strength and proprioception. Working here can also help with nerve-related incontinence and reproductive issues.

Healthy levels of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D also support spine health. Check your levels to ensure you’re strengthening your spine from the inside out.

The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.