Understanding the Language of Spinal Problems

At Long Island Spine Rehabilitation Medicine, many of our patients are confused when it comes to the language of spinal injuries, disorders, and malformations. While our physiatrists have studied the spine in great depth, most of our patients have not. You probably know the language of gardening, mechanics, sales, banking, painting, literature, travel, or some other subject far better than we do.

This blog is designed to clarify the language of spinal problems so that you can feel more comfortable discussing your back complaint. Since we can’t cover the entire topic of spinal problems here, please be aware that our doctors are patient and responsive and welcome any questions.

Defining Confusing Terms Related to Spinal Problems

Spinal Cord vs. Spinal Column

The spinal cord is the complex, elongated network of nerves that runs from the base of the neck to the end of the lower back. Its nerves branch off to control sensation and mobility in the upper and lower limbs. The spinal column, on the other hand, is the bony structure that protects the spinal cord.

Vertebrae vs Facet Joints

Vertebrae (sing: vertebra) are the individual bones that make up the spinal column. Facet joints are the small joints of the spine that link the vertebrae and provide stability and range of motion. Facet joints are made of cartilage and lubricated by fluid that allows the joints to slide smoothly over one another.

Stress/Compression/Hairline Fractures

All three of these terms refer to slender fractures in one or more vertebrae These fractures may be caused by repetitive-action injuries, a weakening of the vertebrae due to aging, especially in postmenopausal women and older men, and (rarely) by tumors.

Compression fractures are nicknamed “hairline” because they are so narrow and often difficult to detect on X-rays. Though they may be very painful in older patients, younger patients may be unaware that they have them and therefore make the situation worse by continuing to exercise.

In older patients, compression fractures can cause a vertebral collapse that lessens height and usually occurs in the front of the bone, leading to a stooped posture.

Adult Scoliosis vs Kyphosis

Scoliosis is a lateral (sideways) curvature of the spine in one or more places, characterized by an asymmetry of the shoulders, waist, hip, and/or rib cage. In contrast, kyphosis involves an abnormal curvature of the spine that causes the patient to lean forward. In older people, both scoliosis and kyphosis are caused by degeneration of the spinal column due to aging.

Sciatica vs Sacroiliac Pain

Sciatica manifests as pain, tingling, weakness, and/or numbness in the leg(s), typically caused by compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve in the lower (lumbar) spine. Though it begins in the lower back, it typically affects the back, hip, and outer side of the leg. Sacroiliac pain (sacroiliitis) affects one or both sacroiliac joints, the joints that connect the hips to the pelvis. Because both problems can be felt in the same regions, it takes an experienced doctor to differentiate the two.

Bulging/Herniated/Slipped/Ruptured Disc

Discs are cushions between the vertebrae that absorb shocks. While discs’ outer layers are tough, their centers are gelatinous. A bulging disc occurs when 1/4 to 1/2 of a disc’s circumference protrudes from its normal position. When a disc bulges, only the outer layer of cartilage is affected.

When a disc is herniated, however, some of the soft inner cartilage protrudes through a crack in the outer surface of the disc, resulting in significantly greater pain due to more nerve compression. Herniated, slipped, and ruptured discs are synonyms.

Contact Our Skilled Spine Doctors Today

If you are suffering any of the above-mentioned spinal problems or any other spinal or musculoskeletal injury or disorder, get in touch with our experienced physiatrists today.

We have many effective treatments, both traditional and complementary designed to relieve your pain and restore your mobility and range of motion. Even better, all of our therapies are nonsurgical. Contact us now so we can begin helping you revitalize.