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Spine Anatomy 101: How the Spine Can Cause Back Pain

Low back pain is the most common pain reported among American adults and back pain in general isOverviewOverviewsssaoo the leading cause of disability in Americans under the age of 45. Learning about spinal anatomy is important because it may help you better understand what is going on, and it will help you communicate more effectively with your physician.


The spinal cord runs from the stem of your brain to your lower back. It’s responsible for sending nerve signals from all over your body to the brain. The spinal cord is protected by a long column of bony vertebrae, called the spinal column. Discs, made up of cartilage, separate the vertebrae and allow the spine to twist and bend.

There are three major regions of the spine: the cervical spine, the thoracic spine, and the lumbar spine. When nerves are irritated, muscles are strained, or other structures get injured in these areas, pain can occur.

Cervical Spine (neck)

The cervical spine is just a fancy name for the neck. This part of your spine contains the top of the spinal cord and supports the weight of your head. Most neck pain results from a muscle, ligament, or tendon sprain, caused by anything from a sudden force, like whiplash, to a strain from sleeping in the wrong position. This type of pain usually heals within a couple days or weeks: rest, heat and cold therapy, and over the counter pain relief medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help.

If your neck pain is chronic (lasting more than three months), you could have a specific anatomical condition, such as a pinched nerve or arthritis. These conditions can usually be treated with medication, therapy, exercise, and sometimes surgery.

Thoracic Spine (Upper Back)

The thoracic spine (upper back) is a solid and stable structure and is usually not a big cause of pain. But if there is upper back pain, muscular irritation and joint dysfunction are two common causes. Large muscles that attach the shoulder to the thoracic region can become irritated and can cause pain. The ribs also connect to the thoracic spine by two joints, and dysfunction in these joints can result in upper back pain2.

Upper back pain is also a common complaint among people who have poor posture, work at computers daily, or spend a large percentage of their time looking down at their phones.

Most upper back pain can be treated with exercise, physical therapy, chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, acupuncture, or massage therapy.

Lumbar Spine (Lower Back)

The lower back handles a lot of motion and carries all the weight of the torso, making it the most frequently injured area of the spine.3 Muscle strain is responsible for the majority of lower back pain. Muscle strain can result from heavy lifting, bending, or other arduous or repetitive use of the lower back region.

Low back pain may result from a herniated disc. A herniated disc can happen suddenly due to injury and heavy lifting, or happen slowly as a part of general wear and tear on the spine.

Disc degeneration can also cause severe lower back pain, especially in older adults.

Herniated discs and degenerative discs can irritate the sciatic nerve, sending pain shooting down the lower back and into the legs.

Lower back pain can often be treated with medication, exercise, heat and ice packs, and rest. Surgery is typically only considered for correcting anatomical conditions like spinal instability or nerve pinching (sciatica).

You don’t have to become an expert on the spine, but being educated about what could be causing your back pain can help both you and your doctors get to the bottom of the issue and solve it quickly. Our next post will take a look at common summer activities that commonly cause back pain.


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