What does the spine consist of?
The base of the spine is known as the coccyx or tailbone and the top as the axis.
The spine consists of 33 bones – 7 of which are known as vertebrae in the cervical region, (neck), 12 in the thoracic region, (mid back), 5 in the lumber region, 5 in the sacral region and 4 in the coccygeal region. All vertebrae are cushioned by spongy intervertebral discs and connected at bony facet joints that act as building blocks of the spine.
Muscles called erector spinae muscles run up and down both the back and sides of the spine. We must aim to keep these strong and flexible. I work along the spine when practising Bowen therapy to help re-align and balance the body since this therapy works with meridian energy.
Interestingly, the Governing Vessel meridian (GV) runs along the top of the spinal vertebrae and the urinary bladder meridians run parallel to the spine!
What do bones consist of?
Bones, including all ligaments, muscles and small and large joints are protected and well lubricated by synovial fluid.
Bones are living breathing tissue that constantly regenerates.
Bone comprises approximately 40% dry organic matter and 60% inorganic. It is made up of different tissues including bone tissue, cartilage, dense connective tissue and epithelium, blood forming tissues, adipose tissue and nervous tissue. Bone tissue is dynamic and changes throughout life.
So, if you wish your bones to remain healthy and have a strong body you need to move and not be sedentary.
In a healthy person you will not encounter bone rubbing on bone! I believe the more you exercise and use your body the stronger it will be. Bone density improves with weight bearing exercise including walking, pilates and yoga. People who are sedentary often have poor bone density and of course gain weight, adding more of a burden to the spine and joints.
Swimming is very good for the entire body as it allows you to stretch out, thus generating strength and tone without any impact.
Swimming or walking in the water is often recommended to recover from injury or surgery.
Bone wears out through poor dietary choices and over-acidic foods when you lack the vital nutrients to help build bone. Many prescription drugs also affect bone health. Most of these drugs impair function of the gastro intestinal tract so you may expect to experience some malabsorption and poor assimilation of nutrients, which, in turn, affects bone health.
Joints are affected by poor gait and misalignment of the pelvis and hips.
A few common disorders affecting the spine:
Any type of injury – this can weaken ligaments and connective tissue generating inflammation and pain.
Osteoarthritis where the cushioning cartilage in your joints begins to deteriorate and becomes thinner and rough with age. In the worst cases, bone scrapes on bone and every movement you make is painful.
Bones Spurs can occur not just on the feet but also on the spine. When there is insufficient cartilage padding, bone can begin to grow like an “off shoot” or spur in the joints of the space.This can cause limited movement and discomfort.These spurs can narrow the spinal canal and squeeze the spinal cord in the centre causing extreme pain. Nerve roots are often pinched and generate pain when spurs form in the small joints known as facets along the sides of the vertebrae.
Stenosis is a narrowing of spaces in the spine that can cause pressure on the spinal cord and nerves, most commonly in the lumbar spine. Compression of the nerve root can generate sharp pain often down the leg. Often this can occur through injury or osteoarthritis.
Osteoporosis can occur in various parts of the body.When affecting the spine, the thoracic area appears to be most vulnerable to breaks and this can generate pain along with loss of height and the dowager’s hump appearance or kyphosis.
Poor posture – of course this can affect the back and any part of the body, generating pain and inflammation.
There are many more complex disorders but I am keeping this simple! The above are common issues that can be helped with natural therapies.
When the spine becomes curved it can put strain on various muscles, ligaments and tendons. It can also affect nerve function to the respiratory system affecting breathing and the digestive system, while also reducing space between internal organs. Difficulty breathing and eating are common symptoms not to mention walking! Pinched nerves can cause constant sharp pain.
When breaks occur in the spine we call them vertebral or compression fractures. It has been noted that such breaks can generate strong pain or none at all. In the latter case, you may not be aware you have a broken bone but height loss may be observed over time.
Also, spinal taps can trigger side effects from headaches to backache commonly noted after the surgery. They can also affect nerve function and in some cases been known to damage nerves.
What you can do to help the spine
- Don’t carry loads heavier than you should, become aware of your limits
- Avoid bending from the waist down
- Try to avoid over twisting of the body in extreme positions
- Take care with exercises if you have pre-existing weakness in joints and bones – discuss with any yoga, Pilate or fitness teacher. Best avoid abdominal crunches and bending over to touch our toes. I would also avoid the cobra position in yoga. Avoid flexing and bending the spine forward.
- Any over exertion of the body such as over stretching out to reach items that are stacked on a high shelf or cupboard.
- Avoid aggressive sneezing and coughing if you can as this has been known to cause minor breaks in a weak spine. Don’t bend forward when you cough and sneeze.To stop yourself from doing this press your hands firmly on your chest and this can help prevent you from bending forward.
- Measure your height or get a friend to do this for you. Otherwise visit a doctor who has measured you previously to check on any potential height loss, which could indicate breaks or compaction.
- Obtain regular blood tests to ascertain any mineral deficiencies. Hair mineral analysis is also another good way of seeing how minerals are absorbed at the tissue level and to reveal any heavy metals.
- Have a bone scan
- Ensure you have a good back support for the chair you sit in. I have not found any good ergonomic chairs and always use a lumbar/sacral support, which is amazing for the low back.
- Educate your body to work correctly. Observe your posture and how you use the body. Make a mental note to correct this.
- Correct any underlying digestive disorders such as leaky gut syndrome, coeliac disease and various allergy triggers.
How can natural therapies help?
Don’t wait till you have a problem! Start now to strengthen the body with pilates, tai chi, yoga and other good stretch exercise and weight bearing exercises and weight lifting. Get professional advice on what is right for your body.
Ensure you are mineralised with a healthy fresh food diet.
Supplementation can be a bonus for anyone who has family history of bone/joint disorders. Don’t overdo it with supplements as large quantities are not always helpful.Good quality practitioner-only supplements containing the right form of mineral (especially calcium) for efficient absorption are the best but often not available through retail stores.
Note that continual calcium supplementation can lead to excess calcium redistributed in the body.
This excess can lead to bone spurs, arthritis, bursitis, tendonitis, arteriosclerosis, kidney stones and even deposit in the brain and eyes.
I’ve met many people who shop around and buy poor quality supplements then complain their condition and pain hasn’t improved. Professional guidance here is important.
Ensure your hormonal levels are balanced. Loss of oestrogen in women can contribute to bone loss. Men also have lower androgen hormones and oestrogen as they age.
Rebalance gut integrity with appropriate probiotics, herbs and homoeopathics to ensure you have an efficient digestive system - so important in absorbing all essential nutrients from your diet and supplements.
Support your adrenal and thyroid health along with correcting imbalances. Organ health is important to enable adequate hormones to be produced. Every gland requires specific nutrients to function well. For example, adrenals require vitamin C, B5 (never without B complex) and in many cases herbal medicine to give strength and nourishment.
Many health disorders benefit by supplementing with vitamin C.
The dosage will vary with each person and whatever health disorder you are treating.Taking large quantities regularly is not recommended since it can affect the kidneys.Vitamin C is required for the body to make collagen, which is vital for a healthy skeletal system and skin. Collagen is like a gluey substance that holds all cells together. Lack of vitamin C can contribute to loss of elasticity and weakening of ligaments and joints.
Vitamin C also helps with calcium absorption. Obviously, you need other nutrients such as vitamin D, vitamin K2, magnesium, phosphorus and boron to name a few to protect against fractures. So include a variety of green leafy vegetables and salads in your diet.
People who go on fad/strict diets can end up deficient in vital nutrients.This also includes those who are acidic due to years of consuming heavy protein, fatty diets, processed refined foods, soda drinks and sugar.
Heavy metal testing is helpful to ascertain any toxic levels. Lead is absorbed over time into the bones. Approximately 90% of lead that is slowly accumulated in the body over time is stored in bone.This stored lead can leach out into the bloodstream during times of stress or hormonal changes such as pregnancy and menopause/andropause.
Research indicates that lead can interfere with the recovery of fractures.There also appears to be a relationship between lead in bones, hypertension and dementia.
If lead is not excreted and stored in the body it is exchanged primarily in the blood, bones, teeth and soft tissue which includes organs such as liver, kidneys, lungs, brain, spleen, muscles and heart.
If you can, have regular treatments – even if once a month – Bowen therapy will help ensure that you are balanced and aligned, as well as rebalancing organ function. Osteopathic treatments or a good remedial or sports massage are also helpful. Any postural issues need to be worked on to improve spine health.
Bowen therapy’s added bonus is working not just on the physical but the energy and emotional body, sending neurological feedback along the spine to the brain. I like to treat the body with every consultation. Bowen therapists always work along the spine which is important not just for postural correction, pain and discomfort but to improve the function of all internal organs since many nerves run from the spine to different organs and body systems.This therapy is not manipulative or forceful in anyway. Bowen therapy enhances the muscle integrity to keep the spine aligned.
If you consider the amount of weight on the lower back you can see the need for implementing some of the above therapies and nutrients to help maintain strength and integrity. Good body weight is important. If you are overweight you may need to look at a weight loss strategy because every time you put pressure on the low back by lifting or even flexing and moving forward, the discs can weaken with age and become worn down. Bones then can put pressure on nerves that emerge either side of the spine.
Seek professional guidance if you are concerned about spine/bone health or experiencing any of the above mentioned disorders. Prevention is the key for a healthy spine!
Lyn Craven is a practitioner of Naturopathy, Bowen Therapy, Energy/Reiki therapist, meditation teacher and Corporate Health Consultant. She is also a health researcher/writer and has produced a meditation CD assisting people to manage anxiety and stress. She runs a private practice in Sydney and can be contacted on +61403 231 804