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Spinal Secret #1: The Areas of the Spine that we Move the Most, Breakdown the Most Quickly

Yes, you read that correctly. If you have ever thought, “my back is sore, what stretch can I do?”, this writing is for you!

Movement, especially excessive movement (which I will call hypermobility) and also a lack of stabilizing forces during movement (the misfortunate combo of weak muscles and over stretched ligaments) allow joints of the spine to break down the most quickly.

There has been research in the field of osteoarthritis etiology that suggests where we have the most sliding between joint surfaces (poor muscular control in stabilizing joints) that we have the quickest breakdown of cartilage. This completely makes sense to me.

Without the use of the muscle (which is meant to stabilize), the cartilage becomes overly exposed to sliding (shearing) forces. There is almost nothing more damaging for our poor cartilage, which does not have regenerative properties. Recall, that your intervertebral discs are a specialized form of cartilage, and susceptible to these forces.

When you look at research on the spinal segments that people have the most issue with they are: L4-5 and C5-6. Because these segments tend to be the places, for a lot of different reasons including (very importantly) our inability to control movement across these areas.

Our spines are incredible, they have evolved to perfectly suit their function, and they are also (like all physical things) ultimately limited in their capacity. No physical object has unlimited capacity. To not recognize and accept this in our physical selves, is not accepting the reality of our experience.

If we have a finite (and it may be A LOT) of bends of our back, but not unlimited bends, shouldn’t we be selective about how and when we are choosing to bend our spines? Shouldn’t we do that when we are doing something that we love? And not say, loading a truck while at work, or while we are working on strength building.

I personally, choose to move my spine when I am doing what I love- surfing, hiking and biking. I am not going to bend my spine excessively, under loads, while I am strength training. During strength training, I am all about protecting my spine (and the spines of the Practical Strength participants).

What can you do to make sure you are not excessively moving joints of the spine?

1) Understand and accept if you have a pre-existing condition that may predispose you to over moving an area.

Some folks are born with conditions of the musculoskeletal system which may predispose them to hypermobility. Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, spondylolisthesis are conditions people can be born with that makes people prone to being hypermobile.

Some conditions of hypermobility. Long term over stretching (in practices such as yoga and ballet) can induce hypermobility (and instability), long term muscle weakness during activity (not being strong enough for your sport of choice- which we are attempting to address in Practical Strength) and some systemic conditions (such as RA) all make you more likely to have excessive movement across spinal segments.

2) Embrace spinal stiffness

Have you ever thought of stiffness as a positive attribute?

With respect to the spine, it certainly is. When you think about mechanical health of the spine, think about a balance scale. On one side, place spinal flexibility and on the other, spinal stiffness and flexibility is lost.

These two attributes are a trade-off and inversely related to one another. Increase spinal flexibility, and stiffness is lost. Increase spinal stiffness, and flexibility decreases.

It has been known for many years in orthopedics, that spines that are stiffer function better and have more longevity than spines with flexibility.

3) Understand, know, befriend your neutral spine

Very few of the folks with whom I work, and these are skillful movers, truly know when their spines are stable and in a neutral alignment. If folks know it when lying on their backs, they can lose it as soon as we get into a push up or dead lift position.

Learning your spinal position in a multitude of positions and changing relation to gravity takes a long time to master. There are layers of complexity to truly mastering your spinal stability. It is a long and worthwhile challenge.

In our Practical Strength classes, we begin feeling neutral on our backs. We then add movement and progress through challenges making our way back up to our feet, all before loading any of our movements.

4) Mobilize your hips and shoulders

When I think about spinal integrity, I often think of stiffness along our spine, and mobility along the “four corners” (the ball and socket joints of the shoulders and hips). We want to learn to rely on our stable glutes and hips, our strong and functional shoulders (the ball and socket joints) to move as they were intended so that our spine can stay stable.

This is not a one size fits all prescription, but just a good rule of thumb.

To help enhance spinal stiffness and integrity, learn to move from your hips and shoulders. And learn what it feels like to keep the spine “silent” while moving your arms and legs.

That is all for this week.

Next week, let’s check out information in intervertebral disc healing.

Until then, happy (safe) moving!


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