Low back pain facts
The first step to understanding low back pain is appreciating the normal design (anatomy) of the tissues of this area of the body. Important structures of the low back that can be related to symptoms in this region include the bony lumbar spine (vertebrae, singular = vertebra), discs between the vertebrae, ligaments around the spine and discs, spinal cord and nerves, muscles of the low back, internal organs of the pelvis and abdomen, and the skin covering the lumbar area.
The bony lumbar spine is designed so that vertebrae “stacked” together can provide a movable support structure while also protecting the spinal cord from injury. The spinal cord is composed of nervous tissue that extends down the spinal column from the brain. Each vertebra has a spinous process, a bony prominence behind the spinal cord, that shields the cord’s nervous tissue from impact trauma. Vertebrae also have a strong bony “body” (vertebral body) in front of the spinal cord to provide a platform suitable for weight bearing of all tissues above the buttocks. The lumbar vertebrae stack immediately atop the sacrum bone that is situated in between the buttocks. On each side, the sacrum meets the iliac bone of the pelvis to form the sacroiliac joints of the buttocks.
The discs are pads that serve as “cushions” between the individual vertebral bodies. They help to minimize the impact of stress forces on the spinal column. Each disc is designed like a jelly donut with a central, softer component (nucleus pulposus) and a surrounding, firm outer ring (annulus fibrosus). The central portion of the disc is capable of rupturing (herniating as in a herniated disc) through the outer ring, causing irritation of adjacent nervous tissue and sciatica as described below. Ligaments are strong fibrous soft tissues that firmly attach bones to bones. Ligaments attach each of the vertebrae to each other and surround each of the discs.
The nerves that provide sensation and stimulate the muscles of the low back as well as the lower extremities (the thighs, legs, feet, and toes) all exit the lumbar spinal column through bony portals, each of which is called a “foramen.”
Many muscle groups that are responsible for flexing, extending, and rotating the waist, as well as moving the lower extremities, attach to the lumbar spine through tendon insertions.
The aorta and blood vessels that transport blood to and from the lower extremities pass in front of the lumbar spine in the abdomen and pelvis. Surrounding these blood vessels are lymph nodes (lymph glands) and tissues of the involuntary nervous system that are important in maintaining bladder and bowel control.
The uterus and ovaries are important pelvic structures in front of the pelvic area of women. The prostate gland is a significant pelvic structure in men. The kidneys are on either side of the back of the lower abdomen, in front of the lumbar spine.
The skin over the lumbar area is supplied by nerves that come from nerve roots that exit from the lumbar spine.