From Vertebrae to Discs: Understanding the Anatomy Behind Back Pain

in Back Pain / June 30th, 2023

Spinal anatomy is complex, as it’s responsible for not only essential structure and support but also the spinal cord’s protection. The spine is vulnerable to a number of painful conditions, which can impact your daily routine and quality of life.

An Anatomical Overview of the Spine

Spanning the skull’s base to the lower back, the spine, or backbone, your body’s central support structure, helps you sit, stand, walk, twist, and bend. It also shields the spinal cord, the central nerve bundle running from the brain’s base to the tailbone. The spinal cord collects information from all over the body and sends it through a complex body-wide nerve network to the brain for processing.

Any spinal cord damage can impact your overall health, including movement and mobility, organ function, and sensory perception. To ensure proper functioning, the spine’s assorted parts must work together. These include the vertebrae, 33 bones stacked together in a column. The vertebrae are divided into the following sections:

  • The cervical vertebrae, the top seven vertebrae, located in the neck.
  • The thoracic vertebrae, the next 12 vertebrae, located in the middle of the back.
  • The lumbar vertebrae, the five vertebrae located in the lower back.
  • The sacral vertebrae, five small bones fused into a bony structure, the sacrum, which strengthens and stabilizes the pelvis.
  • The coccyx (or tailbone), several small bones fused together.

These vertebrae are connected and supported by connective tissues, including:

  • Facet joints – Containing slippery cartilage, they enable vertebrae to slide against each other for twisting and turning and promote flexibility and stability. They also provide a gateway for nerves from the spinal cord to your limbs.
  • Intervertebral disks – Flat, round cushions, they’re found between the vertebrae, serving as spinal shock absorbers.
  • Soft tissues – These include ligaments that connect vertebrae, muscles for support and movement, and tendons, connecting muscles to bone and aiding movement.
  • Spinal nerves – Found throughout the spinal cord, they transport messages between the brain and muscles.

Common Back Pain Conditions and Symptoms

You can experience painful conditions anywhere along the spine due to injuries, illness, or normal aging. Common spinal disorders include:

Herniated Disc

The intervertebral disks are surrounded by a firm, flexible outer ring. Constantly under pressure, that ring can wear away, exposing the softer interior tissue. Also known as a herniated or bulging disc, this can be painful.

Facet Joint Syndrome

Facet joint syndrome develops when joint cartilage breaks down, resulting in inflammation and irritation that impacts nerves. The facet joints require healthy cartilage to prevent friction between spinal bones, allowing them to provide spinal movement and nerve travel.


Radiculopathy involves the nerve roots attached to the spinal cord becoming compressed or pinched. While it may be caused by other spinal conditions, it often results from an underlying chronic (long-term) condition, like diabetes. Among its characteristics is sharp, shooting pain extending into the limbs.


With sciatica, or lumbar radiculopathy, your sciatic nerve, running from the lower back through the hips and buttocks and down each leg, becomes compressed or irritated. This can cause mild or sharp pain, tingling, and numbing in the lower back, buttocks, and legs.


The most common form of spinal arthritis, osteoarthritis involves the gradual breakdown of protective cartilage between joints, generally due to aging. Osteoarthritis damage is irreversible, but its symptoms, including pain, joint stiffness, tenderness, loss of flexibility, a grating sensation, and swelling, are very manageable, typically developing slowly and worsening gradually.

Specific back pain symptoms vary depending on the affected part and condition. They may include:

  • General pain or discomfort
  • Pain that worsens with movement
  • Muscle spasms
  • Stiffness
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Weakness
  • Limited mobility

Get To Know Back Pain and Its Effects

If you’re living with back pain, it may be helpful to understand spinal anatomy. You can then better describe any pain and symptoms to your primary care doctor, enabling a quicker diagnosis and better treatment. They may also refer you to a physical therapist. For more information, please visit the interventional pain management doctors and physical therapists at The Spine & Sports Health Center. Schedule an appointment at one of our Hoboken, Jersey City, or Bayonne, NJ locations.

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