Neck anatomy is a well-engineered structure of bones, nerves, muscles, ligaments and tendons. The cervical spine (neck) 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 movement in all directions.
Watch: Cervical Spine Anatomy Video
The neck begins at the base of the skull and through a series of seven vertebral segments connects to the thoracic spine (the upper back). With its complex and intricate construct, and the many stresses and forces that can be placed on it through a trauma or even just daily activities, the cervical spine is at risk for developing a number of painful conditions.
This article explores how the neck functions and how spinal anatomy relates to common causes of cervical neck pain, a stiff neck, arm pain, and other symptoms of cervical spine disorders.
The Cervical Spine: Roles and Functionalities
The cervical spine performs several crucial roles, including:
- Housing and protecting the spinal cord. A bundle of nerves that extends from the brain and runs through the cervical spine and thoracic spine (upper and middle back) prior to ending just before the lumbar spine (lower back), the spinal cord relays messages from the brain to the rest of the body.
- Supporting the head and its movement. The cervical spine literally shoulders a big load, as the head weighs on average between 10 and 13 pounds. In addition to supporting the head, the cervical spine allows for the head's flexibility, including rotational, forward/back and side bending motions.
- Facilitating flow of blood to the brain. Vertebral openings (vertebral foramen) in the cervical spine provide a passageway for vertebral arteries to pass and ensure proper blood flow to the brain. These openings are present only in the vertebrae of the cervical spine.
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The cervical vertebrae play a key role in maintaining these functions in the neck.