The Cervical Spine

The seven vertebrae of the cervical spine are responsible for the normal function and mobility of the neck. They also protect the spinal cord, nerves and arteries that extend from the brain to the rest of the body.

Cervical spine anatomy

The cervical spine is made up of the first seven vertebrae in the spine. It starts just below the skull and ends at the top of the thoracic spine. The cervical spine has a backward "C" shape (lordotic curve) and is much more mobile than the thoracic and lumbar regions of the spine. Unlike the other regions of the spine, the cervical spine has special openings in each vertebra for the arteries that carry blood to the brain.

Each vertebra is shaped in a special way so that when the vertebrae are stacked together, the spinal cord is protected from damage by the bones of the entire spinal column. The spinal cord is part of your central nervous system and is a direct extension of your brain. It is made up of a large collection of nerves and carries messages from your brain to the rest of your body.

The first two vertebral bodies in the cervical spine are called the atlas and the axis. The atlas is named after a mythical Greek god who supported the weight of the world on his shoulders, and is the vertebral body that supports the weight of your head. The atlas and axis vertebrae in the cervical spine differ from all other vertebrae because they are designed primarily for rotation. The atlas has a thick forward (anterior) arch and a thin back (posterior) arch, with two prominent masses.

The axis sits underneath the atlas and has a bony knob called the odontoid process that sticks up through the hole in the atlas. It is this mechanism that allows the head to turn from side to side. There are special ligaments between these two vertebrae to allow for rotation between these two bones.

Between each vertebra in the cervical spine are discs that act as cushions or shock absorbers and also permit some movement between the vertebral bodies. The entire spinal column is joined together by ligaments that allow the spine to bend and twist carrying the weight of the human body with just the right balance of strength and flexibility. In addition to the intervertebral discs, special joints between each of the vertebral bodies, called facet joints, allow the individual bones of the spine to move and rotate with respect to each other. These joints are important because they can be a source of pain if they become arthritic.

Many muscle groups that move the trunk and the limbs also attach to the spinal column. The muscles that closely surround the bones of the spine are important for maintaining posture and helping the spine carry the loads created during physical activity. Strengthening these muscles can be an important part of physical therapy and rehabilitation.

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