Spine 101

Understanding the spine and how it works

Spines are complicated. They support us, they give us mobility, and they house our spinal nerves. Sometimes these three functions are at odds. In order to keep us upright, a spine needs to be stable. It also has to be flexible in order for us to do everything from tying our shoes to lifting our luggage into the overhead compartment. Lastly, it has to be strong enough to protect the spinal cord, which runs through it and provides the conduit for sensation to reach the brain and for the brain's messages to reach our limbs. That's a lot to ask from one structure.

The architecture of the spine

The spine is made up of a long line of vertebrae, which are stacked up on top of each other and arel labeled according to their position from top to bottom. The structure between each of the vertebrae is called the disc. The disc has many jobs and one of them is to act like the shock absorbers in your car and prevent your vertebrae from rattling against each other with every step you take. In the middle of the vertebrae is a tube, also called the spinal canal, where the spinal cord and a whole bundle of nerves that connects your brain to the rest of your body. On the outside of the vertebrae are muscles and ligaments that work together, forming a system that allows the spine to move.

Line drawing of spinal column