I think we are finally at the point of concluding our description of the body parts and now we can concentrate on the spine. The spine is a no man’s land that has been explored by many, and explained erroneously in so many ways it is hard to believe. My conclusions will be questionable to some, but I am not simply gazing into a witch’s crystal ball. I would defend them because my patients show me the correctness of these findings. Nature defends itself. There is just one physiology, one anatomy; we will not invent anything revolutionary.
Let me divide my deductions into several parts:
1. A mechanical analysis of the spine and a quick look at its five parts
2. The role of the spine in autonomic body function
3. Aikido and the spine
4. Pain and aikido
From the mechanical point of view, the human spine is a system of pivots, shock absorbers, and propelling devices. The range of movement of particular spine parts depends on the shapes of the relevant articular surfaces that determine its mobility.
We anatomically divide the neck into two major parts: the sub-occipital complex, and the remaining part or functionally from the sub-occipital to the C3 level and from C4 to Th4. The upper structure works in a different manner than the rest. It is responsible for rotating the head which goes along the rest of the neck, of course, and meets with the neck/thoracic junction whose rotation is also remarkably significant. The neck bends forward and backwards, and rotates successfully only when all its parts are free from mechanical and reflex limitations, and when the underlying thoracic segments are also fully mobile. A lack of movement on any of these levels requires inner compensation within the spine, and requires extra effort. The short and long muscles of the neck allow it to move smoothly only when of the proper elasticity and length.
The thoracic spine
The strong. but elastic and springy rib gage protects the internal organs, vital to body functions. The thoracic spine has to co-work with the ribs to make the whole structure both rigid and elastic. Its movements are strictly determined by the ribs and sternum. Thoracic spine movements determine the fluid movements of the neck. The muscles do their job well when they are free from pathological tension and injuries.
The lumbar region
This area is the most controversial one due to the many mysteries of the lower back. It mainly bends forward and backward with minimal rotation apart from the very last joint junction between L5 (the lowest lumbar vertebrae) and the sacral bone. Thick discs, strong supporting ligaments and muscles support the upper body on the pelvis,and move it, and decelerate its movements.
The central nervous system penetrates the skeletal spine (bones) via the spinal cord. There are pairs of nerves divided into ventral and dorsal nerves exiting the spinal cord on every level. They innervate all internal organs, muscles, and veins, providing them with connections to and from your brain. With the autonomic nervous system running along but outside the spine, the nervous system controls all bodily functions without any conscious effort on our part. It all works automatically. This is true of the tensing of the muscles, the sweating of the skin, blood pressure, etc. All impulses that go here and there join together in one huge “internet superhighway” within you. Impulses travel very fast from one place to another. The spine and spinal cord play a large part in the channeling of these impulses.
The spine in aikido
There is more to describe here than we might imagine. To make the story short, I will organize it all into points:
a) The spine secures all of the limbs and the chest, so it transmits all movements from one end of the locomotor spine to the other. It works as a transmitter of the smallest tensions and muscle actions that we are applying, feeling or responding to;
b) The spine dampens vertical vibrations through its internal cushions, the spinal discs (gelatinous parts that absorb and dampen vibrations occurring during all movements;
c) The spine allows the performance of any movement required because it consists of so many articular surfaces. It can choose the most convenient combination for movement possible. Usually, the spine makes all of these structures work together with some focused on movement, while others less so;
d) The spine bends to meet the demands placed on it in forward and backward falls. It deals with throws to the mat so as to protect the spinal cord and the rest of the body from being injured;
e) The spine, when free from limitations, allows to us to perform any movement we think of. In an aikido context, any combination of iriminage through kaitennage, to suwariwaza;
f) The spine reads our state of mind, responds to it, and is its reflection regardless of our physical structure and its history. It glows when we are healthy, springy and full of life. It likewise reflects our state when we are in a bad mood, ill, or in pain;
g) The spine is also connected to breathing. Its shape and relationship with the chest is a basic factor in breathing, apart from soft tissue limitations;
A painful spine in aikido is indicative of the following:
a) It has suffered an injury and not properly healed. By injury, I refer to something less than bone breakage, including soft tissue disorders like capsula irritations, ligamentous instability that leads to hypermobility, and/or muscle imbalance affecting actions of the smooth spine region;
b) The spine has had no opportunity for a good warmup before dojo workouts or a reasonable cooling down after,
c) The spine has some persistent irritations in one of its tissues, or in group of them, and cannot work freely without receiving warning signals from them,
From my personal experience, the most common spinal problem is disc dysfunction, prolapse, hernia, or whatever we choose to call it. Discs are commonly blamed for all spine problems, but this is not true. There are so many tissues surrounding the spine that are innervated and that respond when under load. To pinpoint the specific area causing the problem is like exploring a maze. With specific manual procedures we are able to determine what tissue groups we need to work with to minimize and eliminate the problem. Sometimes very simple procedures can bring a lot of pain relief and help us to get back exercising again.
Pain in aikido usually means a lack of elasticity in muscles governing pelvic action and is expressed as asymmetric spinal action. This, in turn, disturbs the fluid action of the whole body, and it is only a matter of time before this results in a painful disorder.
Aikido is supposed to be a pain-free activity. It should fill us with pleasure and a joy of learning and performing. We should not be deprived of participating in this activity. Reasonable stretching exercises combined with skillful breathing, and work on personal growth are a simple way to pain free aikido. Our body, with all its parts described in all my articles, is a fantastic mechanism that serves us 24 hours a day. We need to take care of it to maintain a healthy life. We can enjoy a very balanced state of mind and body through proper nutrition, physical exercise (aikido) and emotional health. That is my wish for all of my aikido friends!