Stacked on top of one another in the spine are more than 30 bones, the vertebrae, which together form the spine. They are divided into four regions:
- the seven cervical or neck vertebrae (labeled C1-C7),
- the 12 thoracic or upper back vertebrae (labeled T1-T12),
- the five lumbar vertebrae (labeled L1-L5), which we know as the lower back, and
- the sacrum and coccyx, a group of bones fused together at the base of the spine.
The vertebrae are linked by ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Back pain can occur when, for example, someone lifts something too heavy, causing a sprain, pull, strain, or spasm in one of these muscles or ligaments in the back.
Between the vertebrae are round, spongy pads of cartilage called discs that act much like shock absorbers. In many cases, degeneration or pressure from overexertion can cause a disc to shift or protrude and bulge, causing pressure on a nerve and resultant pain. When this happens, the condition is called a slipped, bulging, herniated, or ruptured disc, and it sometimes results in permanent nerve damage.
The column-like spinal cord is divided into segments similar to the corresponding vertebrae: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, and coccygeal. The cord also has nerve roots and rootlets which form branch-like appendages leading from its ventral side (that is, the front of the body) and from its dorsal side (that is, the back of the body). Along the dorsal root are the cells of the dorsal root ganglia, which are critical in the transmission of “pain” messages from the cord to the brain. It is here where injury, damage, and trauma become pain.
The nervous systems
The central nervous system (CNS) refers to the brain and spinal cord together. The peripheral nervous system refers to the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral nerve trunks leading away from the spine to the limbs. Messages related to function (such as movement) or dysfunction (such as pain) travel from the brain to the spinal cord and from there to other regions in the body and back to the brain again. The autonomic nervous system controls involuntary functions in the body, like perspiration, blood pressure, heart rate, or heart beat. It is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems have links to important organs and systems in the body; for example, the sympathetic nervous system controls the heart, blood vessels, and respiratory system, while the parasympathetic nervous system controls our ability to sleep, eat, and digest food.
The peripheral nervous system also includes 12 pairs of cranial nerves located on the underside of the brain. Most relay messages of a sensory nature. They include the olfactory (I), optic (II), oculomotor (III), trochlear (IV), trigeminal (V), abducens (VI), facial (VII), vestibulocochlear (VIII), glossopharyngeal (IX), vagus (X), accessory (XI), and hypoglossal (XII) nerves. Neuralgia, as in trigeminal neuralgia, is a term that refers to pain that arises from abnormal activity of a nerve trunk or its branches. The type and severity of pain associated with neuralgia vary widely.
Phantom pain: how does the brain feel?
Sometimes, when a limb is removed during an amputation, an individual will continue to have an internal sense of the lost limb. This phenomenon is known as phantom limb and accounts describing it date back to the 1800s. Similarly, many amputees are frequently aware of severe pain in the absent limb. Their pain is real and is often accompanied by other health problems, such as depression.
What causes this phenomenon? Scientists believe that following amputation, nerve cells “rewire” themselves and continue to receive messages, resulting in a remapping of the brain’s circuitry. The brain’s ability to restructure itself, to change and adapt following injury, is called plasticity.
Our understanding of phantom pain has improved tremendously in recent years. Investigators previously believed that brain cells affected by amputation simply died off. They attributed sensations of pain at the site of the amputation to irritation of nerves located near the limb stump. Now, using imaging techniques such as positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), scientists can actually visualize increased activity in the brain’s cortex when an individual feels phantom pain. When study participants move the stump of an amputated limb, neurons in the brain remain dynamic and excitable. Surprisingly, the brain’s cells can be stimulated by other body parts, often those located closest to the missing limb.
Treatments for phantom pain may include analgesics, anticonvulsants, and other types of drugs; nerve blocks; electrical stimulation; psychological counseling, biofeedback, hypnosis, and acupuncture; and, in rare instances, surgery.
Revision date: July 7, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD