What You Need to Know about Posture: Spine 101

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Today’s post is courtesy of Jessica Hetherington, NASM Certified Personal Trainer, Peak Pilates Instructor, and, most importantly (at least to us), ACE GREEN MOUNTAIN FITNESS INTERN!  Good posture is something Jessica is passionate about.  She shares that passion with us here a 2-part series on posture.  Part 1 gives you some basic information about the spine.

It’s estimated that 8 out of 10 Americans will suffer from some sort of back pain within their lifetime. According to Duke University researchers, back pain and its effects such as surgeries, medication, and physical therapy costs Americans 25 billion dollars annually. Although many cases of back pain are unavoidable due to genetic defects, a large percentage of back pain goes back to one thing: Poor posture.

Before we can talk about posture and its effects, we need to fully understand the anatomy of the spine. Our spine is literally our lifeline, housing our spinal cord, connecting our lower and upper bodies and enabling our bodies to move in the three planes of motion.

The spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of our nervous system which is responsible for sending nerve impulses from our brain to our muscles to create movement. For example, when you touch something that is too hot, a message is sent to your brain. The brain then sends a message back to the muscles of the arm to remove your hand!

Because the spine is involved in so many of our daily activities, it is very susceptible to injuries that have the potential to impair physical function. Strong , flexible muscles and ligaments all contribute to a healthy spine. Bad posture and a large belly can pull the spine out of alignment and cause pain in many parts of the body.

Now lets go a little further and see what the spine is made of.

  • Our spinal columns are made up of 24 bones called “vertebrae” that start at the bottom of the skull and go all the way down to the pelvis. Think of the 24 vertebrae of the spine like a tightly-packed slinky. This “slinky” has 3 main curvatures that are in place to maintain balance, absorb shock and allow for range of motion. A slinky can be stretched long and is flexible.
  • The muscles that attach to the spine are in place to support and stabilize the spine. Ligaments connect bones to bones to form a joint. Muscles also act as levers to move bones and are the primary structure responsible for any kind of movement. (Don’t forget those muscles are controlled by the nerves!)
  • The 7 cervical vertebrae in the neck are small and delicate. When exercising in fitness classes, you may hear and see us be extra mindful when it comes to these vertebrae because of their size and fragility. These vertebrae are responsible for supporting the skull. Dysfunction in the cervical vertebrae may manifest itself as pain, numbness and/or tingling in the hands, muscles of the upper body (neck, triceps, biceps, deltoids) wrists or hands.
  • The 12 thoracic vertebrae are connected to the rib cage, which house and protect the internal organs of the chest such as the heart and lungs. Pain in the thoracic or mid back vertebrae is common and is usually due to poor posture.
  • Next, we have the 5 lumbar or low back vertebrae. The lumbar vertebrae are the largest because they bear the entire weight of the rest of the body. Because they are used so heavily, the lumbar vertebrae are the most susceptible to injury. Standing with poor posture increases the stress on the low back, which can lead to pain and inflammation of the lumbar (low back) spine.
  • Finally we need to talk about spinal discs. You may have heard of a slipped disc or herniated disc and wondered what exactly that meant. Intervertebral discs are firmly embedded in between each one of our vertebrae in order to separate and act as a shock absorber for our discs. When one stands and sits with poor posture, extra stress is placed upon the discs which may then become torn or ruptured. If this occurs, the inner material will press on the nerves surrounding the spine causing nerve pain and a potential slipped or “herniated” disc.

Remember: Every system in your body is connected to each other. When you stand with poor posture, you place unnecessary extra stress on your spine, which can lead to inflamed nerves, which ultimately affects the way your body moves!!!

In our next installment of Posture: What You Need to Know, we will talk about the muscles involved in posture.

Thanks, Jessica!  Important and useful information!!

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