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Diseases & Conditions

Overview of the Spine

The spinal column, or the vertebrae, consists of 24 separate bones along with the fused bones of the sacrum and coccyx. The vertebral column is a strong yet flexible structure that protects the spinal cord, supports the head, provides the ability to negotiate our environment, and that provides an attachment for the ribs. There are four major components of the spine: the vertebrae, joints, discs, and nerves.

Vertebrae

The separate components of the vertebra link together to form a "tunnel" that protects the nerves and spinal cord. The lumbar vertebrae are exposed to significant pressure from the weight of the upper body. The "wear and tear" of this pressure over a period of time can contribute to the development of low back pain.

Joints

Joints, or the spaces between two or more bones, are found throughout the body. Joints allow different degrees of movements that change the position of bones, since bones are too rigid to bend without damage. Joints are located between each vertebrae and provide flexibility and stability within the vertebral column.

Discs

Discs located in between the vertebrae act as "shock absorbers," preventing the vertebrae from rubbing together. Discs function as the "glue" that holds the vertebrae together and they also provide flexibility within the vertebral column. Discs often show the first signs of "wear and tear" associated with the aging process, since they are constantly "squeezed" and "stretched" under normal and abnormal motion.

Nerves

At each disc level, a pair of spinal nerves exits and passes into the arms and legs. The spinal cord (which runs through the middle of the vertebrae) and the spinal nerves act as a "telephone" to allow messages, or impulses, to travel to the brain and then to the arms and legs to control sensation and movement.

What happens to the structure of the spine as people age?

Intervertebral discs have a fiber-like ring (annulus) and a gelatin-like center (nucleus). As people age, the nucleus of the disc begins to "dry up," reducing the effectiveness of the shock-absorbing quality of the discs. As this protection is lost, daily activities can wear down the vertebrae, causing the development of jagged edges (called bony spurs) on the vertebrae. Bone spurs can cause pressure to be applied to the spinal cord and nerves.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 10/18/2007...#8399