One of the most intricate and puzzling parts your body is the nervous system.
If you feel mysterious pain or experience any discomfort you can’t quite identify, it could be the result of unhealthy nerves.
A little research may reveal that the root of your health issues can simply be traced back to a specific nerve. Any medical condition or form of bodily injury that interferes with nerve communication to or from the brain has the potential to cause multiple problems in the body.
Your body is a complicated machine, containing both the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS).
The central nervous system, located in the brain and spinal cord, deals with relaying signals from the brain to the rest of your body. These include organ communications and motor functions - like when your brain tells your legs and arms to move.
In the peripheral nervous system, nerves extend from the spine like dozens of little fibers reaching into the various parts of the body (organs, skin, muscles), allowing them to communicate to the brain; Anything sensory.
After a paper cut, sensory nerves are stimulated and send neural signals of sharp pain to the central nervous system, essentially informing your brain of what just happened to your body.
Aside from sensory signals, the peripheral nervous system also deals with some motor functions and what are known as autonomic functions - operations of the body that happen subconsciously, like respiration, heart rate, digestion, and communication between your organs and your brain.
There are 31 pairs of peripheral spinal nerves extending from in between the vertebrae both in the front and the back of the spine.
Peripheral nerves are divided into four main segments of the spine. From top to bottom, these segments are the cervical (neck), the thoracic (upper back), the lumbar (lower back), and the sacral (tail bone) spinal nerves.
These four regions are distinguished by what are known as dermatomes - a bilateral region of skin along the body controlled by one of the four types of peripheral nerves, distinguished by the differently colored segments in the figure below.
Notice how each dermatome segment starts higher in the back and wraps downward along the front. Dermatome patterns also become more complicated on the limbs compared to the torso.
As mentioned before, dermatomes are a bilateral region of skin, meaning that if a nerve is damaged, adjacent dermatomes could be affected.
In the chart below, see how the T-5 dermatome, represented by the blue lines, has both the T-4 (red) and T-6 (green) dermatomes in between them.
This is what's meant by bilateral; two-sided. In this example, if the T-5 dermatome is injured, you may also feel the injury in the T-4 and T-6 areas. This can make tracing pain back to a particular nerve somewhat tricky.
Unlike the central nervous system, which is mostly protected by the skull, your peripheral nerves are left relatively exposed.
The spine is a very delicate structure whose functions reach every section of the human body.
Trauma or illness occurring along the spine that interrupts nerve/brain relays can lead to certain problems with different parts of your body such as organs and limbs, depending on where the impairment is occurring.
The cervical spinal nerves come from the first seven vertebrae, starting at the top of the spine (represented by the top, green segment of the dermatome figure above).
There are eight spinal nerves (C1-C8) that deal with the motor and sensory communication with the arms, neck, and the area of the torso just beneath the neck.
Sensory interruption with these nerves could numb your sense of touch, cause general pain or paresthesia (the feeling of pins and needles) in the affected areas, and even potentially render your arms and hands less mobile.
And, as the C3-C5 cervical nerves control your diaphragm muscle - which allows your lungs to expand and contract - an injury here may cause difficulty breathing.
Going down the spine, the next twelve vertebrae (T1-T12, represented by the yellow areas in the dermatome figure above) are referred to as the the thoracic spine - the part of the back that supports most of your ribcage.
Twelve thoracic nerves are designated to your upper back and most of your torso (chest and abs).
Those who suffer from a long thoracic nerve injury could feel weakness or pain in the nerves and diminished mobility in the shoulders.
Recovery is often a delicate process. Careful, minimal treatment is generally required and can take up to two years to complete.
Ever pay attention to those loud mattress/sleeping product commercials sporting excellent “lumbar support”? Well... apparently lumbar support is important.
Going further down to the next five vertebrae, between your rib cage and pelvis, are your lumbar nerves (L1-L5, represented by the blue area on the dermatome figure above).
The spinal cord ends after the second vertebrae in the lumbar section and nerves become more exposed at this point.
Lumbar nerves deal with sensory and motor functions in your legs - in other words, these nerves keep you up and moving around! Depending on the severity of the injury or medical condition, impairment of these nerves can result in diminished mobility in the legs or even paraplegia. A healthy lumbar also helps regulate the autonomic functions in your abdominal organs including your bladder and bowels. This means that along with incontinence, even sexual dysfunction can result from damage along the lumbar.
At the end of the spinal column is the sacral bone (also known as the tailbone). Rather than containing one nerve for each vertebrae, the sacral acts more like a single bone with five nerves (S1-S5, represented by the red portion of the figure).
Again, each nerve regulates a different section of the body.
- S1 - Hips and groin
- S2 - Thighs on the backs of the legs
- S3 - Buttocks
- S4 and S5 - Perineal area
The sacral nerves actually start in the lumbar portion of the spine, so a lot of health problems can be the same concerning both of these segments.
Similar to the lumbar nerves, disrupting the communication between the sacral nerves and your brain could lead to diminished leg movement and unresponsive lower abdominal organs leading to impaired walking, incontinence, and sexual dysfunction.
Maintaining A Healthy Spine
The nervous system is so delicate and complex that it continues to elude medical science to this day. It’s a naturally sensitive part of your body that you should treat with the utmost care. Find the least invasive form of treatment and work your way up to discovering a method that fits your needs.
Maintaining good posture is your first line of defense in preventing nerve issues. While you may be tempted to stand as straight as possible, the healthy spine does not look like a straight line - the spinal structure contains natural curves at certain points. Don’t strain yourself and make sure your posture most resembles the figure under the green check-mark to the left.
For a healthy body, it’s a good idea to maintain an exercise routine. Staying active, even just a little bit, is better than remaining stationary. Be careful not to over-exert yourself - especially if you are already experiencing back problems. In that case, start out small. Be very careful and consider physical therapy if necessary.
Again, it’s important to be very careful here. Stretching is a good way to relieve tension along the spine, but don’t overdo it. Figure out what portion of your spine it is that’s causing trouble, and find some stretches that target that area.
The “Cat to Cow” stretch, for example, is a good stretch for the lumbar - shown in the image below.
Cat to Cow Step-By-Step Instructions
- Starting Position: Place your hands and knees on the ground, aligning your hands with your shoulders, and your knees with your hips. Keep your back flat, and your neck should be straight, aligned with the rest of the spine - you should be looking at the ground.If you have a neck injury or if your neck hurts during any portion of the stretch, try keeping your neck still during the entire stretch.
- Keeping hands and knees still, breathe in, as you exhale, carefully round your spine upward (like a frightened cat). As you do this, lower your head, but don't touch your chin to your chest.
- Inhale, carefully arch your back downward while lifting your chest and buttocks upward, and while also lifting your neck so that you are looking straight ahead.
Always coincide your movements with your breathing. And if any part of the stretch causes pain or discomfort, please consult a yoga instructor or a doctor before continuing your stretches.
Many cases of nerve problems are the result of inflammation(8). Some doctors may prescribe muscle-relaxers (which can be dangerous and addictive) and hard anti-inflammatories like aspirin and ibuprofen - which can be hard on the liver.
Instead, consider including natural anti-inflammatories into your diet. For example, turmeric(5), the main ingredient in curry, has powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
Attempting an anti-inflammatory solution is a good place to start, especially if you are unsure of the nature of your spinal problems.
The World Federation of Chiropractic‘s(6) definition of chiropractic is:
“A health profession concerned with the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system, and the effects of these disorders on the function of the nervous system and general health. There is an emphasis on manual treatments including spinal adjustment and other joint and soft-tissue manipulation.”
Realigning the spine and adjusting vertebral discs can relieve pressure and compression causing impaired and painful nerve functions.
According to Dr. Langston Holly(7), an associate professor of neurosurgery at the University of California, LA.:
“Normal aging often narrows the spinal canal, putting pressure on the spinal cord and injuring tissue. While surgery can relieve the pressure and prevent further injury, it can’t repair damage to the cells and nerve fibers.”
Surgery is invasive, risky, and often very expensive.
For these reasons, medical science has been studying the effects of anti-inflammatories as an alternative to surgeries and other potentially tricky methods.
So if you ever find yourself wondering why several, seemingly unrelated medical issues are cropping up all at once? Don’t get overwhelmed!
Your nervous system is one of the most sophisticated mechanisms in your body - it should be treated as delicately as possible.
***This article is intended to provide information and general education only - please don’t use this information to diagnose, treat, or cure any illness or medical condition, or as a substitute for medical advice.***
That’s just about all for now.
To your health,
-Chris Ford - Director of Health Research
Cat to Cow Yoga gif