More than 100,000 workers suffer back injuries each year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They can be very painful and can occur in the neck, mid or low back, affecting everything you do.
Understanding your spine's range of motion, how it moves and what its limitations are can help you prevent injuries and strengthen and stretch your back muscles.
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Structure of the Spine
Your spine is made up of 24 bones called vertebrae. These are divided into three groups: cervical (neck), thoracic (mid-back) and lumbar (lower back).
In between each bone is a disc that acts as a cushion called the intervertebral disc. The bones are further connected by small muscles called multifidi that allow you to move your spine in conjunction with the larger muscles of your body.
Movement and Measurement
Spinal motion is measured in degrees of range of motion, or ROM. All movement starts from a neutral position, standing up straight, arms to your sides and eyes straight ahead. This is 0 degrees. The four movements measured are:
- Flexion (forward bending)
- Extension (bending backward)
- Lateral flexion (bending side to side)
- Rotation (twisting)
Your cervical spine supports and enables you to move your head. It's made up of seven vertebrae and is shaped like an inward "C" called a lordotic curve. Flexion is dropping your chin to your chest, and the normal ROM is 45 degrees.
Extension is dropping your head back and looking up. Normal extension ROM is 45 degrees. The normal ROM for lateral flexion, or dropping your ear to your shoulder, is also 45 degrees. Normal ROM for rotation is 80 degrees in each direction.
Thoracic and Lumbar Spine
The thoracic section of your spine is made up of 12 vertebrae and shaped like a backward C, called a kyphotic curve. The lumbar spine is made up of five vertebrae, and it curves in like the cervical spine in a lordotic curve.
Together, these vertebrae allow you to perform the major movements of the spine. The normal ROM for flexion or forward bending is 90 degrees. For extension, it's approximately 30 degrees. The normal ROM for side bending and rotation is also 30 degrees.
Improving Spinal Range of Motion
To improve range of motion, stretch in each direction of natural movement. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends stretching two to three days per week to improve flexibility. Hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Perform stretches gently and not to the point of pain.
Common Causes of Back Injuries
Injuring your spine can happen at any time. Oklahoma State University reports the most common causes are:
- Heavy lifting
- Twisting at the waist while holding a heavy load
- Reaching and lifting
- Working in uncomfortable positions
- Standing or sitting in one position too long
You can control how much you lift and how you move, so take care when performing activities.
- Oklahoma State University: "Back Safety"
- American College of Sports Medicine: "ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Spine Structure and Function"
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: "Back injuries prominent in work-related musculoskeletal disorder cases in 2016"
- Spine Health: "Stretching for Back Pain Relief"