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Cavemen Didn’t Have Backaches – and Other Interesting Facts About Your Back

You probably don’t think often of your back and spine. Most of us take our back for granted unless there’s pain. Yet we often use expressions that mention the area that’s hard to see in a mirror:

Get off my back!

She’s totally spineless.

I’ve got your back, pal.

He did it when my back was turned.

So how much do you know about your back? Take this 3-question quiz (answers at the end of this post!):

  1. How many vertebrae (backbones) make up the spine?
  2. What is the spinal cord?
  3. Where are the discs located?

Fun Facts About the Back

You probably knew those answers from your grade school science classes, but who recalls boring stuff like that? Here are some fun facts that may be interesting enough to stick in your memory.

  • Cave-dwelling Neanderthals apparently had little need for chiropractors. According to a 2008 study, two complete adult fossil skeletons show surprisingly few signs of our modern wear and tear despite how physically active the people must have been. Researchers chalk it up to the likelihood of heavier back muscles that protected the spine.i
  • The ancient Egyptians apparently knew all about back pain and injury. The oldest known text on back trauma is a papyrus probably copied from a 17th century BC scroll! It offers physicians advice on 48 cases of spinal trauma. For instance, the translation of Case #48 reads: “If you should examine a wrenching/sprain in the vertebral column of lower back, then you are to say to him: ‘Please extend your legs’. ‘Contract it’. Then he must extend it. He has to contract it immediately because of the pain that it makes in the vertebral column of his back from which he suffers. Then you are to say to him: ‘One who has a wrenching/sprain in the vertebral column of his lower back (this is) a medical condition I can heal’.”ii How’s that for bedside manner?
  • Humans and giraffes have something in common. We both have seven vertebrae in our neck. How does that stack up? Well, a giraffe’s neckbones are obviously shaped to be individually much longer than ours. In fact, almost all mammals have seven neck vertebrae.
  • Just as you rarely think about your back, you also aren’t aware of gravity as you go through your day. However, your spine is affected by the force that keeps us from floating off into space. From sunup to sundown, you lose a tiny bit of height each day, but you regain it when you sleep. Did you know that astronauts who spend a month or more in a space station can become up to 3% taller than they were on earth? Of course, once they’re back on the home planet, that extra height quickly diminishes.

A Not-So-Fun Fact

While such information may be interesting or even amusing, there’s a serious side to the spine. Since we lack the musculature of the Neanderthals, life in the 21st century brings with it hazards for spinal degeneration leading to arthritis of the spine’s small facet joints. Some risk factors are more serious than others: obesity, work that involves bending and heavy lifting, and smoking are just a few. Facet joint arthritis occurs when cartilage that coats the contact points of the joints wears thin. This most often occurs in the lower back (lumbar spine) which receives the lion’s share of impact and movement.

Facet joint pain ranges from mildly uncomfortable to agonizing. In addition to bone-on-bone contact if cartilage wears away, compression on the nerves that branch off the spinal cord through the facet joint space can create radiant pain down the back of the legs. When pain is no longer relieved by exercise, massage, physical therapy and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis as soon as possible. If the pain is due to facet joint arthritis, why endure painful spinal injections that bring only a few months’ relief at a time? The Sperling Medical Group provides a new noninvasive MRI-guided treatment to permanently stop facet joint nerve pain at its source. It is called Focused Ultrasound, a one-time noninvasive outpatient procedure. Learn more at the Sperling Medical Group.

And Now, the Quiz Answers…

1. It can vary from 26-35. Infants start with 33 but some bones fuse as they grow.

2. A flexible trunk of nerve tissue and spinal fluid housed in the spine that connects the brain with nerves that branch out to all body parts.

3. 23 discs are located between vertebrae—6 in the neck, 12 in the midback, and 5 in the lower back.

iWeber J, Pusch CM. The lumbar spine in Neanderthals shows natural kyphosis. Eur Spine J. 2008 Sep; 17(Suppl 2): 327–330.

ivan Middendorp JJ, Sanchez GM, Burridge AL. The Edwin Smith papyrus: a clinical reappraisal of the oldest known document on spinal injuries. Eur Spine J. 2010 Nov;19(11):1815-23. Full text at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2989268/

Facet Pain