A Patient’s Guide to Cervical Spine Anatomy
To learn much more about the individual parts of the spine you may wish to review the document, entitled:
The Cervical Spine
The neck, also called the cervical spine, is a well-engineered structure of bones, nerves, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. The cervical spine is delicate—housing the spinal cord that sends messages from the brain to control all aspects of the body—while also remarkably strong and flexible, allowing the neck to move in all directions.
The cervical spine is made up of the first seven vertebrae in the spine. It starts just below the skull and ends just above the thoracic spine. The cervical spine has a lordotic curve (a backward C-shape) – just like the lumbar spine. The cervical spine is much more mobile than both of the other spinal regions – think about all the directions and angles you can turn your neck.
Unlike the rest of the spine, there are special openings in each vertebra in the cervical spine for the arteries (blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart), as well as the spinal canal that carries the spinal cord. The arteries that run through these openings bring blood to the brain.
Two vertebrae in the cervical spine, the atlas and the axis, differ from the other vertebrae because they are designed specifically for rotation. These two vertebrae are what allow your neck to rotate in so many directions, including looking to the side.
The atlas is the first cervical vertebra — the one that sits between the skull and the rest of spine. The atlas does not have a vertebral body, but does have a thick forward (anterior) arch and a thin back (posterior) arch, with two prominent sideways masses.
The atlas sits on top of the second cervical vertebra — the axis. The axis has a bony knob called the odontoid process that sticks up through the hole in the atlas. It is this special arrangement that allows the head to turn from side to side as far as it can. Special ligaments between these two vertebrae allow a great deal of rotation to occur between the two bones.
Though the cervical spine is very flexible, it is also very much at risk for injury from strong, sudden movements, such as whiplash-type injuries. This high risk of harm is due to: the limited muscle support that exists in the cervical area, and because this part of the spine has to support the weight of the head. This is a lot of weight for a small, thin set of bones and soft tissues to bear. Therefore, sudden, strong head movement can cause damage.