The spine, also known as the vertebral column or the backbone, makes up a portion of the body’s axial skeleton. It serves as the main support for the body and enables humans to stand up straight, bend, and twist. The spine is also responsible for protecting the spinal canal and spinal cord.
The spine is made up of three different segments, each representing the spine's three well-defined curves. These include the cervical spine, thoracic spine, and the lumbar spine. This is why, when seen from the side, the spine takes the shape of an S, with the cervical and lumbar regions each forming a concave and the lumbar region forming a convex. Together, the three segments of the spine are composed of 33 individual bones that are arranged with one on top of the other and surrounded by strong muscles, nerves, and tendons that are connected to the rest of the body.
These 33 individual bones divide into five different groups, with the cervical spine containing 7, the thoracic spine containing 12, and the lumbar spine with 5 vertebrae. The last 9 bones are the 5 vertebrae of the sacrum and the 4 vertebrae of the coccyx.
Within the spine are the spinal cord and a network of nerves that run from the skull towards the lower back. These are part of the central nervous system. Along the spine, there are openings through which the nerves branch outwards to transmit messages between the muscles and the brain.
Common Spine Problems/Conditions
Common problems and conditions affecting the spine are usually due to spinal deformities or abnormal curvatures. The most common are the following:
Spina bifida – This is a congenital disorder that develops when the vertebral arch does not close properly during the embryonic stage. Spina bifida presents in different degrees of severity. In severe cases, the spinal meninges and even the spinal cord protrudes through the skin, causing a cyst-like appearance. These cases are called spina bifida cystica.
Scoliosis – This is one of the most common conditions that affect the spine. It is often caused by the unequal growth of either side of the vertebrae, causing them to fuse together in an abnormal manner. The condition more commonly affects women and is highly likely in individuals who suffer from pulmonary atelectasis or the deflation of the lobes of the lungs.
Spinal stenosis – This condition is caused by the narrowing and constriction of the spinal canal.
Kyphosis – When the thoracic spine has an abnormal curve, it causes a person to become hunched over.
Lordosis – Also known as the “swayback,” this condition is caused by the abnormal curving of the lumbar spine.
The spine can also suffer from injuries, such as a spinal disc herniation. Also known as a slipped disc, this condition occurs when the intervertebral disc’s outer ring develops a tear and causes some of the material inside it, called the nucleus pulposus, to bulge outwards.
Common Spinal Procedures and Surgeries
Discectomy – This is used to remove a herniated disc in order to relieve symptoms such as back pain, muscle weakness, and numbness.
Spinal decompression surgery – Decompression surgeries are used to relieve nerve root pressure, a common symptom of lumbar spinal stenosis and lumbar herniated disc. The procedure is performed by removing a small part of the bone located directly over the nerve root to give the nerve enough space.
Spinal fusion surgery – Spinal fusion procedures help created a bridge made up of bones to connect two or several adjacent bones that are otherwise mobile. A fusion surgery helps improve the stability of the spine.
Some of these procedures can now be performed using minimally invasive techniques.