The spine, also known as the spinal column or backbone, is our body’s central pillar. One of its main roles is to guide the numerous movements that the trunk allows us to make: flexion, extension, rotation, inclination.
It consists of 24 vertebrae: 7 cervical, 12 thoracic and 5 lumbar vertebrae, as well as 5 sacral vertebrae forming the sacrum and 3 to 5 vertebrae forming the coccyx. Like all joints, the vertebrae are held together by numerous ligaments and muscles. But they are also separated by an intervertebral disc, which acts as a sort of cushion: it supports weight (our weight as well as the weight of anything we are carrying) and absorbs shocks associated with each movement we make.
Each component making up the spine can be a source of backache: low back (or lumbar) pain, when the base of the spine is affected, back (or dorsal) pain when the middle of the spine is affected and neck (or cervical) pain when the neck is affected.
The most common cause is muscular pain, which can develop following intensive physical effort (such as carrying a heavy load) or a sudden incorrect movement or uncomfortable posture, in which case the term “lumbago” is used. These types of pain generally only last a few days. The equivalent pain can be found in the neck, in which case it is called torticollis.
Intervertebral discs are extremely important structures which are also a frequent cause of low back pain. An intervertebral disc consists of a ring of fibrous cartilage with a gelatinous core at its centre. It is an elastic structure with a high water content. As we age, the proportion of water decreases, making discs less elastic and, therefore, the back stiffer!
A herniated disc (or “slipped disc”) occurs when the disc “protrudes” from the intervertebral space: this can occur suddenly following intensive effort or more gradually in the event of degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis. It can cause sciatic pain (feelings of burning/pain/tingling, numbness in the legs, which may radiate to the foot, following the nerve pathway). This is known as sciatica. When the problem affects the neck, it causes cervicobrachial neuralgia.
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