*This article originally appeared on Dr. Kristen Mitteness’s blog. We are republishing it here with permission.
Did you know that your spine is supposed to have curves? Three beautiful ones, in fact. The ones in your neck and low back, which are called lordotic curves, should match. The one in your thoracic or mid-back is called a kyphotic curve.
There is an "ideal" form they should have, but there are also "normal variants.” That means they might be outside what we deem “normal,” but still fine for you.
Developing a healthy spine
When you are born, you just have one big kyphotic curve (think of a baby in the fetal position). As you learn to crawl, you develop your lordotic curves in your neck and lower back, which eventually lead you to walking with proper mechanics and a healthy spine.
These curves work like springs. When you walk, they absorb force, allowing the joints between your vertebra to move nicely. If your spine was as straight as a stick, it would be like a rod hitting the ground with every step you take. It would be much tougher on the joints between your vertebra (the little bones that make up your spine).
When the spine is curved appropriately, the vertebra and the discs between sit in their appropriate places. This allows the nerves and vessels that run between them to have enough room to get through their respective openings. Spinal curves give your vertebra a better chance to stay aligned. Like parts of a machine, when things are aligned, they seem to work much better.
The most common issues I see with my patients' spinal curves are:
- A forward-leaning head. This results in a decrease in the spinal curve and more weight on the upper and mid-back due to the head feeling heavier as it gets further away from the body. It can result in headaches, neck and shoulder pain, upper and mid-back tension and pain down the arms or into the hands.
- Flattening of the mid-back or thoracic curve. As the head moves forward and the neck curves start to flatten, the mid-back follows suit and also loses its curve. This can result in difficulty breathing and mid-back pain.
- Hyper (too much) or hypo (too little) curve in the low back. If the low back curve is too much, it is commonly called “sway back.” It can look like someone is sticking their butt out. I see this often in gymnasts or those who have a background in gymnastics. Alternatively, I often also see a loss in the low back curve. This is most commonly seen in those who sit with poor posture for long periods of time (desk jobs) and start leaning forward. Their whole spine starts to revert to the fetal position. This can result in low back pain, pain going down the legs, hip pain and more.
Improving your spinal curves
So, how can you work to improve your spinal curves to ensure your back is healthy? Here are a few tips.
- Get up and move! The more we move (rather than sit), the more the muscles and joints in our back can work to maintain good movement, which can also improve alignment.
- Check yourself. Notice if you are standing or sitting with poor posture and correct it. Simply noticing the poor posture can help you make changes to improve it.
- Stop doing sit-ups. Poor spinal curves often come from leaning forward, not leaning back. If we go to the gym and do a bunch of sit-ups, we are only encouraging forward movement of the spine. In and of itself, this isn't a bad thing. But, chances are, you've done way more sit-ups in your life than back extensions. It's a great way to not only lose your spinal curves, but to create muscle imbalances and become prone to injury.
- Get adjusted. Chiropractors are highly skilled in assessing and treating the spine. If keeping your spine healthy is something you think is important (I sure do!), make sure to get checked by a chiropractor.