Wellness Articles

A Healthy Spine is not Straight

July 18, 2022

Straighten your back! Sit up straight! Flatten your back! We’ve probably all heard these suggestions at some point of our life, and often they mean well. They suggest not to hunch our backs too much and keep the core muscles active in order to provide support for the spine. However, if we are not aware of the natural construct and alignment of our spine and we take these instructions too literally, we might end up hurting our backs.

In this blog post, we want to share some information about the natural curves of the spine and how removing them can cause lower back pain.

Pain-free Posture: Respect the Natural Curves

A healthy spine is not straight but has natural curves as shown in the picture. This is also called “neutral spine” or “neutrally aligned spine”.

Neutrally aligned spine and pelvis provide the basis for a healthy and pain-free back.  Maintenance of the normal spinal curvatures is of utmost importance in prevention of lower back pain as these curves absorb the forces to which the spine is exposed to. If the curve in the lower back (lumbar spine) is excessively deepened, the vertebrae are no longer properly positioned on top of each other. This will increase the shear stresses at the joints of the spine.

On the other hand, if we decrease the curve too much in order to “straighten” our back, we will increase the stress on the discs between the vertebrae. This greatly reduces the ability of the lower back and pelvis to absorb forces placed on them when walking, running, jumping, or doing any kind of movements. A “flat back” posture also requires excessive use of the muscles in the lumbopelvic area and can cause both dysfunctional movement patterns and unnecessary muscle tension.

To be able to move efficiently, neutral alignment of the spine needs to be dynamic. This means that it’s important to learn to engage core muscles without losing the natural curvatures of the spine. We don’t want to strive towards a straight back but a strong and supported, neutral spine.  

A major factor in maintaining neutral alignment and/or providing support for the moving spine is correct and sufficient activation of the core muscles along the spine and in the abdominal wall. There are some very effective yoga and Pilates exercises that can be used for training this activation and core awareness.

Although these exercises are quite simple, we highly recommend starting to practice them with a qualified teacher who can make sure that you’re maintaining correct alignment and activating the required muscles. This way you’ll benefit from the exercises far more.

Once established, it’s good to start practising and focusing on core support in slightly more complex movements. Yoga is an excellent companion for this purpose as it uses movements and poses that move across the full range of motion. In order to be fully functional, this core activation should – with time – become automatic and not require constant conscious effort.

Happy, healthy moving!
Picture of the spine: The normal curves of the spine (Original picture from Gray H. [1918] “Anatomy of the Human Body”, courtesy of Assoc Prof Craig Hacking at https://radiopaedia.org)

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