“Even though your parents and grandparents didn’t have tails, if we went back in time and looked at ancestor species that we have in common with other primates, we would see some tails.” At least that’s the bald pronouncement of Erika Deinert, Biologist, Washington State University.
The tailbone or coccyx, is located at the bottom of the vertebral column. Composed of three to five bony segments, it is considered the vestigial remnant of a tail. Luckily, the bones are partially fused together so there’s no flicking around that would in any way resemble the movement of a tail. Its original purpose remains debatable, and its continued presence a matter of speculation. Will it grow? Or is it on its way out?
Well, in some people it has grown, necessitating some hasty surgical work on babies who have the temerity to arrive sporting an ancient ancestral link that most families refuse to acknowledge. Even though we don’t see humans walking around with tails, there is evidence that they can, and sometimes do, develop this unwelcome protuberance in the womb. The tail-like structure forms during early development, but is usually absorbed before birth.
Most people prefer to ignore the tailbone and rarely mention it. Not many people announce airly: ‘My coccyx is feeling really chipper today.’ No, there is too much tail-attached evidence that makes it an embarrassing bone, rather like grandpa’s hairy bottom or a great-aunt’s perfume which makes her smell like an unaired cupboard – it’s a topic carefully avoided. The tailbone is persona non-grata – not even considered during an exercise class.
However, if you fall on it, it’s a different matter. It can be one of the most painful areas of your body to injure because there are quite a few ligaments and muscles attached to it. And if the bones in this area are shifted through trauma, falls or bad posture, or degenerative bone disease such as osteoporosis, or even vaginal childbirth – the pain thus elicited can feel dull and achy, becoming sharper during certain activities, such as sitting, rising from a seated to a standing position, or prolonged standing.
There’s not a lot one can do to alleviate tailbone pain; it’s not as if you can plaster it up or put it in a sling – you just have to take things slowly and gently and be patient, because usually over time it will go away on its own within a few weeks or months.
Managing tailbone pain can include:
- Leaning forward while sitting down, so that you take the pressure off the bottom of the spine.
- Sitting on a doughnut-shaped pillow or wedge (V-shaped) cushion.
- Applying heat or ice to the affected area.
- Taking general pain relief medications such as: aspirin, panado, ibuprofen, etc.
Possible treatments for chronic tailbone pain might also include:
- Specific tailbone exercises can help to relieve the spasms caused by the muscles and ligaments tensing to protect the tailbone.
- Physical therapy.A physical therapist will suggest pelvic floor relaxation techniques, such as breathing deeply and ways to completely relax your pelvic floor. Massaging the muscles attached to the tailbone might help ease pain. Manipulation is typically done through the rectum.
- An injection of a local anesthetic into the tailbone can relieve pain for a few weeks. Certain antidepressants or anti-epileptic medications might relieve tailbone pain as well.
- During a procedure known as a coccygectomy, the coccyx is surgically removed. This option is generally only recommended when all other treatments fail.
Perhaps our ancestors had the better of us – after all, their tails were very useful in supporting them – either swinging about in the trees or standing on the ground. But the more they began to stand upright, the less they needed the tail. And let’s be honest, perhaps that extra ‘leg’ so to speak would be useful as we get older. Fear of falling is a major anxiety in older people; bones age and become more fragile for various reasons, and having another ‘bit’ on the side (so to speak) would be enormously comforting to lean on.
Even though swinging in the trees would probably not be advised, the mere idea that we could clamber up a tree, sit in the sun-drenched leaves, travel above the traffic to the shops, and fulfil all our childhood climbing dreams, might just…dangerously…be enough to spur us on!
Love your bones! Nothing gets more sat upon than your coccyx. Always take care of the tail end of things.
NOFSA (National Osteoporosis Foundation South Africa)
NOFSA is the only non-profit, voluntary health organisation dedicated to promoting lifelong bone health. We focus on reducing the widespread prevalence of osteoporosis while working to find a cure for the disease, and by supporting research and developing programmes of education and advocacy.
Find out more about our work at: www.osteoporosis.org.za