With an estimated 65 million Americans suffering from chronic back pain, the importance of maintaining good spinal health is fundamental to a person’s overall sense of well-being. “Many spinal problems can be prevented and many existing conditions can be corrected, but still patients live in pain,” said Yevgeniy Khavkin, MD, Chairman of Surgery and Director of Spine and Neurosurgery Service at Southern Hills Hospital & Medical Center.

Introduction to the spinal column

The spinal column — composed of bone, muscle, nerves and soft tissue — is an integral part of the nervous system and skeletal structure. Each vertebra bone of the spinal column is sandwiched between intervertebral discs, which allow for shock absorption and flexibility. Surrounding the vertebrae and intervertebral discs are muscles and ligaments that hold the body upright and allow for the range of motion of the abdomen.

Tips for a healthy back and spinal column

Because the spinal column is what allows your body to carry out its most basic functions, taking proper care of it can contribute to your overall health and sense of wellbeing. “Most spinal problems aren’t life or death, but they can affect your quality of life greatly,” Khavkin said.

For good spinal care, Khavkin stressed the importance of regular exercise, particularly core strengthening; eating a diet rich in vitamins and minerals to aide bone density; and maintaining a healthy weight. “Because the spine experiences so much wear and tear and degenerative change throughout a patient’s lifetime, good habits are very important, whereas bad habits can cause big problems,” Khavkin said.

Options for patients who have back pain

“Most back and neck problems don’t require surgery and can be helped with a combination of physical therapy and rehab under the guidance of a specialist,” Khavkin said.

For patients who do need surgery, there are more options available than ever before. While spine surgery has the reputation of being traumatic and requiring a great deal of recovery time, that’s not always the case. Khavkin performs many using a minimally invasive method that allows the patient to be up and about the next day.

“I see patients who have experienced chronic neck and back pain for decades, and once they have the problem surgically corrected, they wish they had done it a long time ago,” Khavkin said. “My first recommendation is always to see a spine specialist if you’re experiencing back or neck issues.”

The risks of smoking

An often overlooked bad habit that can greatly affect your spine is smoking. “Everyone thinks of smoking as something that’s bad for your heart and your lungs, but it affects your whole body,” Khavkin said. Smoking can dramatically disintegrate bone quality, leading to weak bones and lowered bone density. “During surgery, I can always tell the difference between smokers and nonsmokers by how soft their bone is.”


Most people have 33 vertebrae, although some people may have 32 or 34 depending on their anatomy. The 33 vertebrae create four distinct sections of the spinal column.

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