Inner Reflections
February 6, 2023

Why It’s So Important To Move Your Spine

The health of our spine is integral to our health – studies have shown that 90% of the stimulation and nutrition of our brain are generated by the movement of the spine!  Getting to know the anatomy of our body is so helpful in understanding how to best care for our spine. Having worked with clients as a Physical Therapist for almost two decades, I know that many solutions come back down to anatomy! Which is one of the reasons I created the “Building a Healthy Spine for Life” series with IDM.

As we age, we can begin to lose mobility through our joints and especially through the spine.  If you practice yoga, you may be familiar with poses such as upward dog, sphinx, and camel. Each of these poses places our spine and our hips into extension.  Mobility into extension is one of the first pieces of mobility we may lose as we age.  When it comes to mobility or flexibility, if you don’t use it, you do lose it.  Much of our life involves moving into flexion: sitting at a computer, sitting to drive, bending forward to get clothes out of the laundry, or squatting down to pick up a child. Because so much of our life involves activities moving into flexion this creates an imbalance in the amount of movement – unless we have a daily mobility practice allowing our spine and joints to move into extension, side bending, and rotation.  Having mobility in all these directions is key to a healthy spine and the foundation of health for our body and brain.

Each part of our spine is different. The four main sections of the spine include the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacrum.  The shapes and sizes of the bones from the top of the spine to the lower part of the spine are unique to function at each level.  The main bones of our spine are called vertebras. The largest section of the spine is made up of the vertebra body at each level.  These are the main stacking blocks of our spine and guide the movement that is available at each segment of our spine through the facet joints (the posterior portion of each vertebra). The vertebrae are surrounded by ligaments.  Ligaments are tissues that connect from bone to bone to provide stability as well as block movement to protect our joints, bones, and vital organs such as the spinal cord and organs.  Between each vertebra, there is a disc – this is a flexible but stable structure allowing our spine to move, bend, twist, and be active!

The topmost part of the spine at the cervical or neck has 7 cervical vertebrae. The topmost bone of the cervical spine is named the “Atlas”.  This vertebra is unique as it is mostly flat and the full weight of the head rests on this bone.  The Atlas is named after the Greek God who had the weight of the world sitting on his shoulders.  The shapes of these bones allow a great amount of mobility in flexion, extension, rotation, side bending, protraction, and retraction.  Rotation allows us to look side to side to side to check for traffic while driving or to check each side of the street before crossing. The cervical spine allows for a great amount of extension or the ability to look upwards and gaze at the night sky.  Protraction of our neck allows us to crane our neck forward to reach our loved one’s lips or bridge the gap between our lips and some tasty food.  Retraction allows us to move our head back if we smell something horrible!

The thoracic part of our spine is home to 12 vertebrae.  These vertebrae also have extra supporting structures – the ribs that attach between each thoracic vertebra. This creates a strong protective cage for our most vital organs of the heart and lungs.  Comparing the sizes of the vertebra from cervical to thoracic we can see that the bones are larger in this area than in the cervical spine. Due to their shape and the attachment site of the ribs, there is much less freedom of movement at the thoracic spine than at the cervical spine.  Despite this difference, the thoracic spine allows for flexion, extension, side bending, and twisting, just to a lesser extent than the cervical spine.  The thoracic area of our spine can be prone to loss of movement because there is so much stability provided by the ribs – especially if we don’t move outside typical daily activities involving mostly flexion.

The lumbar spine has 5 large vertebrae.  These large bones support the entire weight of our upper body, chest, and arms and are the transition point from the upper body to the pelvis and legs.  At the level of the lumbar spine, there is most movement into flexion and extension.  Due to the shape of our lumbar spine bones, (and more specifically our facet joints) – the movement of rotation or twisting is largely blocked in this area.  So, in yoga class when instructors queue to twist from the belly button up it is primarily to protect the lumbar spine. Most of the twisting in our spine comes from the levels above the lumbar spine at the thoracic and cervical.  It is key and important to know this so that we are not working against the building blocks of our body and respecting the structure of our anatomy.

The lowermost part of our spine at the sacrum is very different from all the areas above. The vertebrae here do not move as they are fused one to the other.  The sacrum attaches to the pelvic bones which create a bowl housing yet more vital organs – the bladder, sexual and elimination organs all exist in this area of our body.

So… how will you best care for the mobility of your spine today? To age gracefully and remain mobile a daily movement practice is key!  Be sure to check out my new series “Building a Healthy Spine for Life” for suggestions on how to target each part of the spine into better mobility!

By Christine