How The Back Works
The back is an amazing structure. As its central support, there are 33 vertebrae balanced on top of each other, held together by ligaments and cushioned by intervertebral disks. There are 7 cervical vertebrae, which are the smallest and most flexible. The top two have very specific functions. The first cervical vertebra, or atlas, articulates with the base of the skull, allowing nodding movements. The second, the axis, rotates around a peg connecting into the atlas and allows turning of the head.
The 12 thoracic vertebrae provide attachments for each of the 12 pairs of ribs, and have long, bony spines projecting from the rear to prevent us from bending too far backwards. Below the thoracic vertebrae, we have five lumbar vertebrae, which are the most solid and strong ones. However, they allow great flexibility in the lower back area. They also provide attachment for some of the big abdominal muscles. The next five sacral vertebrae are fused together before birth to create the sacrum. This triangular bone connects with the hip bones to form the pelvic girdle. Finally, there are four coccygeal vertebrae that fuse to form the coccyx – the remains of our tail!
Although there is only a small amount of movement between any two vertebrae, their combined small movements give the back great flexibility in most directions. The arrangement of many small bones forming a column also provides strong support and attachment points for most of the back muscles.
The main muscles each side of the back are:
- trapezius – a kite shaped muscle covering the upper back, neck and top of the shoulders. It helps to balance the head by pulling it backwards and raises the shoulders.
- latissimus dorsi – which runs in a broad diagonal band from the lower back to under the arm. This draws the arms backwards as in rowing.
- quadratus lumborum – a very deep muscle that connects the bottom ribs with the top pf the pelvis and helps maintain the correct pelvic tilt.
- erector spinae – the muscle group that forms the rounded contours on either side of the spine, and helps to extend the spine backwards.
- the gluteals, or buttock muscles – which stabilize the pelvis on the thigh.
Because muscles can only work by pulling on structures to move them, the muscles in the back can only pull backwards. In order to counteract the movements of these large muscles, it’s only recently been realized that we need equally strong abdominal muscles on the front of the body to maintain good posture and a healthy back. Nowadays however, we often don’t develop the necessary strength in these muscles, and the result is lower back problems that develop in our 30s and 40s.
In women, pregnancy contributes to loss of muscle tone, so they tend to suffer lower back pain at a younger age. In men, the loss of abdominal muscle tone and development of a paunch in their 40s tends to be the trigger. Back muscles can often be too tense, distorting the pelvic tilt and leading to problems with vertebral alignment. They may need to be stretched and released, rather than over-strengthened.
Stress And The Back
Some of the large muscle groups in the back are particularly vulnerable to the changes that stress causes in the body, as we need these muscles to run (lower back and buttocks) or fight (upper back and shoulders). Moreover, the modern, largely sedentary lifestyle provides too little exercise to mobilize and stretch all the back muscles properly and too much sitting, which puts strain on the lumbar region and – if we work at a desk or keyboard – tightens the upper back and shoulders. It’s little wonder that back problems are one of the main causes of working days lost in industry, not to mention the pain and suffering of the affected individuals.
The mind and emotions also play a part in our body posture. A happy, confident person moves in a balanced, upright and open-bodied way. Someone who is sad, depressed, tense or anxious tends to be bowed and stooped, with an inward, closed body position.
Not only can back problems cause pain in specific areas, but misalignment of the spine can lead to pressure on the nerves that leave the spinal cord between each vertebrae. These nerves lead to all our internal organs and structures, allowing the brain to control and co-ordinate our body’s involuntary activities. If the nerve supply to a particular area is impaired, the circulation and lymph flow in that area will be poorer and the organ or structure may not function properly. Therapies such as osteopathy and chiropractic work to realign the spine, to relieve pain and restore full function by freeing the nerve supply from restriction.
Essential Oils And The Back
For back problems, choose essential oils with muscle relaxing, pain relieving and anti inflammatory properties. Before attempting to treat, find out as much as you can about the condition. If there’s any chance that the back is damaged, the safest way to use essential oils is in a cool compress. Consult a professional before using massage. Only massage if you’re sure that the problem is muscular tension, as stimulating an already inflamed area may worsen pain and inflammation.
Massage is unbeatable for helping to relieve tension. With suitable essential oils and a caring touch, emotional stress, muscular pain and fatigue are eased.
Cool compresses are a safe way to administer essential oils if injury or inflammation are suspected. Warm compresses are soothing for muscular tension and are good for self-help.
Using essential oils in the bath gives all round effectiveness. Again, hot baths may not suit back conditions where inflammatory or injury is present, but are ideal for relaxing muscles. As circulation improves in the warm water, penetration and aroma of essential oils will be increased.