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Talk Back - From the Spine

by Ruth White(more info)

listed in back pain, originally published in issue 94 - November 2003

Christine used to suffer more agonizing misery on my account than from any other part of her body. I am Christine's backbone and she had some fanciful ideas about me.

She used to think of me as a series of 'joints' that go 'out' – out where? I ask. Every year or so when I used to flare up, Christine had me pummeled, heated and drugged – none of which does much good. The pains I gave her were simply my response to the bad treatment she gave me. Ironically, there was very little wrong with me that Christine couldn't put right herself with yoga.

Unlike a four legged suspension bridge, I am a tent pole and quite a versatile tent pole at that – one that can bend, twist, swivel a head and support most of the body's weight.

I also provide security for Christine's 18 inch spinal cord. Let anything serious happen to this whitish half inch thick cable and Christine will be likely to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair, for the millions of messages which fly back and forth along it direct all the activities below the neck level. I protect the cord with three layers of sheathing, a fluid bath to take up shock, plus a bony housing.

Message received – 31 pairs of nerves branch out from the cord. Nearly half are sensory which convey information to the brain; the rest are motor which transmit orders from the brain. In some situations, the cord even does its own thinking. Christine's finger touches a hot stove; there is no time to waste conveying this information to the brain. My cord orders a reflex action and the finger jerks away.

The chances of my cord ever causing Christine any trouble are rather remote but my 33 vertebrae and their supporting structures are another story. A wide range of things can cause pain here; trouble with kidneys, prostrate gland or liver; arthritis and various infections, even emotions. For example, when Christine has had worries that nagged at her for days, she developed a dull backache.

She didn't connect my hurting with her worries and as usual she thought I was 'out'.

What was really happening was this; strong emotions tighten muscles; mildly tensed for several days, my muscles grew tired and announced it with dull pain, but once Christine stopped worrying, I ceased hurting.

Starting at the top, I have seven cervical vertebrae, which are capable of an extraordinary range of movement. In addition to supporting Christine's head, they can twist to let Christine look down at the ground or up at the stars. Laterally, they permit 180 degrees of motion, letting Christine look over either shoulder.

The 12 thoracic or chest vertebrae, which come next, are not capable of such a wide range of movement; there is no need for it. The ribs are hooked to these. Trouble in this area is rare.

At the lower end are five heavy lumbar vertebrae which carry most of Christine's weight; five sacral segments which are fused together to make the sacrum, and four smaller segments fused together to form the coccyx. This lower area, particularly around the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae, is the big trouble spot.

When Christine was born I was more or less straight. Then, as she began to hold her head erect, my vertebrae took on a curve in the neck area. Another curve developed lower down when she began to toddle.

RESULT – I have a vague S-shape today. Actually, this is far better than a perfectly straight spine, for the arches act as shock absorbers.

There are other shock absorbers as well – there have to be. If vertebra grounds on vertebra, absorbing 100 pound jolts with every step Christine takes, I wouldn't last long. Thus, between each pair of vertebrae, I am equipped with cushions called discs. Something like jam doughnuts, they have a tough envelope of cartilage containing a resilient, jelly like substance.

Discs are susceptible to several kinds of injury. A really severe jolt – a car accident or a serious fall perhaps – can simply squash a disc, usually one at the bottom of the spine. This is sometimes incorrectly attributed to a 'slipped disc'. This often calls for major surgery involving removal of the remnants of the disc and fusion of the two vertebrae.

WARNING SIGNAL – A less severe injury can rupture the disc's envelope, permitting jelly to ooze out. This can cause acute misery. The disc material presses on a nerve and the irritated nerve throws one of my muscles into spasm. This spasm is a protective effort. The muscle senses that I am in trouble and tries to splint me to prevent motion that might cause additional damage.

Muscles in spasm have other effects as well – they twist the victim out of shape, causing a limp and possibly bending the person forward. A ruptured disc almost always irritates the sciatic nerve which extends to the legs. Pain then radiates all the way down to the toes.

CARE AND SUPPORT – Christine's back problems stem from weakness and stretching in my elaborate supporting system – 400 muscles and 1,000 ligaments.

People can avoid a lot of misery in the years to come if they only give me the care I require. Check posture right away. Stand as firmly as you can against a wall, then slip a hand behind the small of your back. There should be very little room. The greater the space there, the more I am curving – probably because of muscle weakness – and the more likely I am to cause trouble.

Muscle weakness is really the key to the whole thing. This is where yoga really helps with strengthening yoga exercises. Yoga practice, daily if possible, plus more attention to posture and thoughtful choosing of beds (firm) and chairs (firm) are a small price to pay for my well-being.


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About Ruth White

Ruth White is an established yoga teacher, who was taught by BKS Iyengar. She has two centres for Yoga, one at Fetcham, Leatherhead and the other at Cheem, Surrey. She has produced an entire range of Yoga Videos and DVDs useful for everybody's needs or abilities. Ruth conducts Teacher Training Certificated Courses and Workshops throughout the UK. She can be reached on Tel: 020-8641 7770;;


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