On May 27, 1995, actor Christopher Reeve broke his neck in a horseback riding accident and was paralyzed from the neck down.
In what’s known as a “hangman’s fracture,” his first two cervical vertebrae (the two at the very top) were broken.
Dr. Mary Ellen Cheung, program director for spinal cord research at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, put it this way at the time:
“A spinal cord injury is always serious and the higher it is the more serious it is.” She described Reeves’ injury as “almost like a complete separation of the brain from your body.”
The spine houses a bundle of nerves that allows the brain to keep us moving, functioning and healthy. When a connection is severed, it’s like shutting off the switch to a vital function.
It doesn’t take an injury like Christopher Reeves suffered to do damage, either. Most of us don’t think a lot about the health of our spine, but clearly, we should.
Here are half a dozen things that could go wrong.
6 things that could happen to your spine
Slipped disk. Without the cushion known as a disk that sits between each of your vertebrae, your spinal bones would constantly scrape against each other.
As you get older, those disks start to dry out. Too much stress on the back, and a disk can tear or break (a herniated disk). Your arms and legs may tingle. If exercise and painkillers don’t work, surgery is necessary to repair the disk.
Cervical spondylosis. This is often a result of joint changes in your neck that come with age, including bone spurs (“extra” bone growth).
Smoking, inactivity and repetitive stress on the neck are all risk factors. Pain around the shoulders and a stiff neck are the first signs of this condition.
If you suddenly experience tingling or numbness in your arms or hands, you should see your doctor. They will rule out other conditions, such as fibromyalgia, before treating you, usually with muscle relaxants and physical therapy.
Spinal stenosis. When the spaces between your vertebrae narrow, nerves that travel through the spine get pinched or irritated. This could happen in the neck (cervical stenosis) or the lower back (lumbar stenosis, which is more common).
Spinal stenosis can be caused by a herniated disc, by the thickening of ligaments in the spine, or by bone spurs or tumors.
Weakness or tingling in the feet, pain or cramping in the legs while walking, and back pain can all signal a case of spinal stenosis.
Kyphosis. Kyphosis is an exaggerated forward rounding of the back that can happen at any age, but is most common in older women. It’s also known as a “dowager’s hump.”
The condition is often due to weakness in the spinal bones that happens with age. This weakness causes the bones to compress and crack.
When severe, kyphosis can be not only quite painful but disfiguring as well. In addition, severe kyphosis can cause digestive and breathing problems.
Cauda equina syndrome. This is a rare condition, but one that must be addressed immediately in order to prevent loss of sensation in the legs, as well as loss of bowel or bladder control.
The group of nerves that branch out from your spine into your lower back, known as the cauda equina, help your brain control your legs and the organs of the pelvis. A herniated disc or fracture can put pressure on these nerves and cause damage.
Osteoarthritis. On the other hand, osteoarthritis is a very well-known condition. When the cartilage in the spine wears down, the vertebrae start to rub against each other, making your back painful and stiff.
While osteoarthritis can’t be reversed, it can be treated with painkillers, therapy and exercise. “4 simple ways to feel better if you have painful osteoarthritis” and “For arthritis, try the paleo diet rather than painkillers” offer some natural ways to calm the pain of osteoarthritis.
Taking care of your spine
Perhaps one of the most important things you can do is avoid injuring your spine. I know that can be easier said than done.
Daily activities, like sitting too much, repetitive movements and improper heavy lifting can leave you flat on your back before you know what hit you.
Those are a few reasons why it’s important to keep your spine flexible and strong.
One of the best ways, hands-down, is yoga.
Yoga is one of the ancient practices that by design is supportive of a supple spine, strong back, mobile joints, and a flexible body. Asanas, or Yoga postures, are practiced to move the body into healthy postures where they can be held to strength the body while also making it more flexible.
You might want to start practicing these 6 poses for a strong back and supple spine regularly.
But if your back is already bothering you a bit, here’s some good information from my colleague Dr. Mark Wiley on how a chiropractor can help you maintain the health of your spine.
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