If you can stand or sit upright, you have your spine to thank. The spine is a stack of bones known as vertebrae that run along the center of your back from your neck to your seat. It has the important job of supporting your head, shoulders and upper body and giving you the flexibility to bend and twist. The spine also plays a key role in protecting your spinal cord — the set of nerves that connect your brain to most of your body.
A healthy spine keeps you moving with ease. But for the 100 million Americans who suffer each year from a spine problem, the ability to stand, sit, walk or take part in other activities of daily living is anything but simple. According to the National Spine Health Foundation, spine conditions are the no. 1 reason people experience physical pain. That pain in the back or neck accounts for the second highest number of doctor visits after the common cold.
“With all the demands placed on the spine, it’s no wonder problems can strike and at any age,” says Todd Shanks, M.D., a neurosurgeon on the medical staff at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Plano. “When injury or disease occurs in the spine, it can be severe and debilitating if not properly addressed.”
The following are some common spine disorders that Shanks says he sees in patients and symptoms to look out for.
Nerves branch off your spinal cord through spaces between the vertebrae. If one of these spaces shrinks, the surrounding bone can put pressure on the nerve resulting in a pinched nerve. This pinching may cause burning pain that radiates down the back of the impacted leg or lead to a feeling that the foot has fallen asleep. Common causes of a pinched nerve include injury, arthritis, stress from repetitive work or a sports activity, and being overweight.
Once the pressure is relieved, nerve function typically returns to normal. However, chronic pain and permanent nerve damage may occur if the pressure continues for a longer period of time.
“It’s important to see a health care professional if the signs and symptoms last for more than several days and don’t respond to rest and over-the-counter pain relievers,” Shanks says. “Sometimes surgery is necessary when conservative treatment doesn’t relieve the pain from a pinched nerve.”
Discs act like cushions between each vertebra in the spine. Over time, spinal discs become drier and prone to degeneration. A sudden change in movement or a twist can lead to the rupturing or tearing of a dehydrated or worn disc. A disc is considered herniated when it shifts and bursts out of its casing.
While some herniated discs have no symptoms, they can interfere with nerves in the spine to cause a variety of issues, including:
- Dull pain in the back
- Pain in the arms and legs
- Muscle weakness
- Difficulty moving
A herniated disc happens most often in the lower back, but they can also strike in the upper back. “You can lower the risk of a disc herniation by maintaining a healthy weight, practicing good posture throughout the day and getting regular exercise,” Shanks says. “It’s time to see a doctor if you experience severe pain or any other symptoms.”
Spondylosis is a common cause of chronic neck or back pain brought on by wear and tear on the spine. More than 85 percent of people over the age of 60 are affected in either the cervical spine (neck) or the lumbar spine (lower back). The condition most often causes pain and stiffness in the neck or difficulty maintaining a hold on small objects, although many people experience few symptoms.
“When symptoms do occur, nonsurgical care such as medication and physical therapy often are effective,” Shanks says. “You should seek medical attention if you notice a sudden onset of numbness or loss of bladder or bowel control. Without proper care, spondylosis can lead to spinal stenosis, or a narrowing of the spinal canal, and studies show that degenerative changes in the lumbar spine are more likely to lead to spondylosis or disease of the cervical spine.”
The sciatic nerve runs from your lower back all the way down your leg. Cleveland Clinic describes sciatica as a condition that results from damage to the sciatic nerve and results in pain, numbness, weakness or a burning sensation in the lower back that radiates down one or both legs. The nerve damage that causes sciatica may come from a narrowing spine that compresses or pinches the nerve, a herniated disc or a bone spur. Because the sciatic nerve is the main nerve in the leg, sciatica can make sitting for any length of time or standing quickly very uncomfortable.
“Physical therapy, steroid injections and working with a qualified specialist can help manage sciatica pain,” Shanks explains. “Symptom relief is also possible with prescribed pain relievers, muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatory medication. The good news is acute sciatica symptoms tend to go away on their own and rarely require measures such as surgery.”
Some people are born with an unusually small spinal canal, or backbone. This can put pressure on the spinal cord and nerves that travel through the spine. But most spinal stenosis happens when something reduces the amount of open space within the spine, such as:
- Bone spur
- Herniated disc
- Wear and tear changes related to arthritis
- Trauma or injury to the spine
There may be no symptoms with the condition, or symptoms may appear and worsen over time. “People who do have symptoms most often experience pain, numbness, tingling and muscle weakness,” according to Shanks. “People with severe cases of spinal stenosis may need surgery, which can create more space inside the spine to ease pressure on the spinal cord or nerves.
Prevention Tips to Protect Your Spine
When it comes to spine health, Shanks says there are six key things to think about:
- Ergonomics: Use the right chair or tools for the best spine support.
- Exercise: Try to move your body at least 20 minutes a day to keep it flexible.
- Posture: Remember, shoulders back and chin up.
- Lifting: Know and practice correct lifting techniques.
- Stretching: Incorporate stretching into your daily routine.
- Core: Find ways to strengthen core muscles for spine protection.
“Understanding whether spine pain and difficulty is a temporary inconvenience or something more serious, like a herniated disc or spinal stenosis, is an important step in properly treating the problem. Neurosurgeons are trained to diagnosis a broad range of spine problems and help you get back to living more fully,” Shanks adds.
Ready to schedule an appointment? Find a back and spine specialist on the medical staff near you.