Lumbar Spine 101: Learning About the Lower Back
Lower back discomfort is not uncommon for American adults. In fact, it’s one of the most common reasons people visit their primary care physicians. Lower back stretches can usually provide relief to get you through the day, but what else is there to know about your lumbar region? Let’s discuss this!
What is the Lumbar Spine?
The lumbar spine is part of the lower back and is associated with the legs and feet. It serves several functions, such as allowing your body to move and protecting your spinal cord. Your lumbar spine also distributes your body weight, and the nerves in this region control leg movement.
The lumbar vertebrae have the largest bodies out of all the other regions, making them primarily responsible for supporting the entire upper body.
The Five Vertebrae of the Lumbar Spine
The entire spinal column has a total of 24 vertebrae divided into five regions. The lumbar spine consists of five vertebrae in the lower back, each serving different functions for nerves and muscles.
The L1 vertebra is located in the uppermost region of the lumbar spinal column. It works with the L2 to provide movement and sensation in the pelvic and hip areas. These bones also help the muscles function by bending and flexing the hips. If your L1 vertebra is affected, it may also impact bowel and bladder function.
The L2 vertebra is just below the lower curvature of the spine. The spinal vertebrae below this point only consist of nerves, making the L2 the end of the spinal cord proper. The nerves in the L2 vertebra affect sensation in the front part of the upper thighs.
An injury to the L2 vertebra may result in similar effects as the L1, though most people may still be able to feel their upper thighs and move their hips.
Next in line is the L3 vertebra, which has the longest spinous process in the lumbar region. It also allows you to straighten your knee and rotate the hip outward. The L3 and L4 are connected by a pair of facet joints. L3 vertebra injuries can impact the legs, hips, or groin by causing weakness, numbness, or loss of flexibility.
The nerves in the L4 vertebra allow you to bend the foot upward. They also affect the sensation in the front and inner parts of the lower legs. Lower lumbar injuries aren’t too common, but damage to your L4 vertebra can limit your ability to bend your feet in particular directions.
The L5 vertebra is the lowermost section of the lumbar spine. The nerves in your L5 vertebra provide sensation to the outer side of your lower leg and the upper part of your foot. It functions by allowing you to extend the toes while also controlling hip, knee, and foot movement.
For some people, the top two portions of the region below the lumbar spine (the sacrum) don’t fuse properly and form an extra bone in the spinal column. This is known as lumbarization, which creates a rare sixth lumbar vertebra. Though mostly harmless, people who experience lumbarization may have unexplained lower back discomfort and are more prone to spinal herniated discs.
The Other Supporting Structures of the Lumbar Spine
There are also other structures that make up the lumbar region of your spine, including five intravertebral discs, facet joints, and various nerves and ligaments. All these supporting structures help your spine maintain its unique curvature.
Some of the muscles that also support your lumbar spine include:
Most people refer to the latissimus dorsi as their lats. This broad, triangular-shaped muscle starts at the bottom of the sixth thoracic vertebra (T6) and covers the width of your mid and low back. Your lats help your arms pull up your bodyweight and allow you to bend sideways.
The iliopsoas consists of a group of three muscles that move your hip joint. You have one on each side of your body, and they stabilize your hips and lower back while walking or running. The iliopsoas automatically connects the spine to the lower limbs.
The paraspinals are another group of three muscles that are responsible for supporting your back and keeping your body upright. They’re located along the length of your spine and help you extend, bend to the side, and rotate your torso. Those who want to treat back problems and improve posture should build strength in the paraspinals for the best results.
What are Some Common Lumbar Spine Injuries?
Lower back aches and lumbar spinal injuries are quite common, especially for athletes or those who perform manual labor. It can be easy for certain physical activities to impact your lower back, which is why posture and strengthening those muscles are crucial. Below are a few of the common injuries and conditions that can occur in the lumbar spine:
Spondylolisthesis is a condition where a lumbar vertebra slips out of place onto the one below it. This can put pressure on the nerve and cause discomfort in the lower back or legs. There are several types of spondylolistheses a person can experience:
- Traumatic – due to an event that puts high force on the spine, such as a car accident or a fall
- Degenerative – due to degenerative diseases that occur with age, such as arthritis
- Congenital – due to a rare disability at birth in the facet joints connecting the spinal vertebrae
- Isthmic – due to a fracture of the bone that connects the upper and lower facet joints
- Pathologic – due to bone weakness from tumors or bone disease
- Iatrogenic – due to a complication from a prior spinal surgery
Sciatica is a series of symptoms that occur when the sciatic nerve becomes pinched, compressed, or otherwise irritated. The sciatic nerve begins in the lower back and runs through the hips, buttocks, and down each leg. Anything that affects this nerve can cause tingling, numbing, or burning sensations in the lower back and legs.
A herniated disc occurs when the rubbery cushion that sits between your vertebrae gets torn, causing the soft center to stick out. Many people don’t experience any symptoms, but those who do may feel lower back discomfort, numbness, or weakness. Most herniated discs occur from natural wear and tear.
Lumbar lordosis is also known as “swayback.” This condition results in an excessive curve in the lower back, which puts excess pressure on the lumbar vertebrae. Lumbar lordosis can be caused by disease, poor posture, or excessively bending your back.
Scoliosis is a common spinal disorder that causes an abnormal curve in the spine. Adults are at a greater risk of developing this condition in the lumbar spine because of the natural degeneration that occurs as you age.
Lumbar stenosis is the narrowing of the space around your spinal cord. This limited space can cause your lumbar spine to become compressed or pinched, leading to discomfort or numbness. People with lumbar stenosis often experience these symptoms in the lower back, legs, hips, and groin.
Sometimes your spine may develop a fluid-filled sac called a cyst. This generally occurs due to the natural effects of degeneration. Symptoms will vary based on the size and location of the cyst, but backaches are relatively common.
Negative Effects of Lumbar Spine Injuries
Exact symptoms will vary depending on which vertebra you’ve injured, but lower back discomfort is a definite side effect of lumbar spinal issues. You might experience more severe problems if you notice any of the following concerns that occur with your back aches:
- Loss of movement
- Altered sensation
- Difficulty with balance
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
How Should You Treat a Lumbar Spinal Injury?
One of the best things you can do to reduce lower back discomfort is to take things easy for a bit. If you strained or pulled a muscle in the lumbar region, you should avoid strenuous activity until it heals. Lower back stretches are also great for improving back flexibility and preventing injuries.
If you have a severe spinal condition that doesn’t improve with therapy or lifestyle changes, surgery could be an option. Depending on the issue, your doctor may recommend a procedure to correct spinal alignment or remove spurs and herniated discs.
Preventing Lumbar Spine Discomfort and Injuries
You can take several steps to limit your chances of lower back discomfort or spinal injuries. Your spine is a critical part of the body, and you should keep it strong and healthy to function properly. Below are a few lifestyle changes to incorporate if you want to lessen your chances of developing lumbar spinal issues:
Between desk jobs and movie marathons, more people are living sedentary lifestyles. The human body isn’t meant to be stationary for long periods, so getting up and exercising is essential. Being seated for too long can weaken your muscles and lead to discomfort. Movement is also excellent for relieving back aches.
Learn the Proper Lower Back Stretches
Stretching is equally important for keeping your muscles strong and limber. Going to a professional to learn which stretches are best for your back can help you find relief in no time. The best moves for your lower back discomfort shouldn’t only target the lower back. You should also be stretching the surrounding muscles, like the hips, groin, and pelvic region.
Our stretch practitioners may recommend a few good stretches, such as:
- Knees to chest
- Child’s pose
- Hip stretches
Maintain a Healthy Diet
Chronic back discomfort is linked to inflammation, which occurs from a poor diet. Pro-inflammatory foods often provide little to no nutrient value and include things that are processed, fried, and full of sugar or caffeine. If you cut out or limit how much of these foods and beverages you consume, you may notice a significant difference in your lower back discomfort.
Practice Good Posture
Good posture is essential for many reasons, from stopping premature wear and tear of the joints to preventing muscle fatigue. Sitting, standing, or lifting the wrong way, especially for prolonged periods, can cause the spine to become fixed in an abnormal position. Your body weight should be evenly distributed on both sides when you stand or sit. Having extra lumbar support can also be beneficial.
Excess weight can affect the pelvis and lumbar spine by causing the pelvis to become pulled forward, leading to strained lower back muscles. Being overweight or obese is one of the leading causes of chronic back aches. Even losing just a few pounds can make a difference to your discomfort.
Several studies have found a link between smoking cigarettes and lower back aches. This is likely because smoking can damage your arteries and increase your risk of osteoporosis. It’s also believed to increase your sensitivity to discomfort, making chronic back aches feel worse for smokers.
How Can Stretch Zone Help?
When starting any new activity, it’s always best to get help from a professional. They can guide you in the right direction and ensure you perform correctly to avoid further injuries. The same goes for stretching!
If your lumbar region is particularly tight, it may limit your mobility and impact how you stretch. The professionals at Stretch Zone are trained in a proven method to help people gradually improve their range of motion so they can feel better and move better. Using our patented strapping tables to isolate and stabilize your muscles allows us to stretch your lumbar region more efficiently and effortlessly.
Fast Facts About the Lumbar Spine
Below are a few quick facts about the lumbar spine that may surprise you!
- Sitting hunched over at a desk can put approximately 200 pounds on the lumbar area.
- We’re born with 33 vertebrae, but as we grow older, some of them fuse to form the sacrum and coccyx.
- Car accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries.
- Your spine may seem vulnerable, but it’s strong enough to withstand many strenuous activities involving lifting and bending.
- Your spine can store a memory for aches.
Let Our Professionals Assist You with the Best Lower Back Stretches
Knowing a little more about the lumbar spine may make it easier for you to discover what causes your lower back discomfort. If you’re ready to learn some of the best stretches and exercises to reduce your aches, the team at Stretch Zone is here to help. Find a location near you and set up your session for a professional practitioner-assisted stretch today!