Cervical Vertebrae

disc herniation
Fig. 1: Sagittal view of the cervical spine
(larger view)

The cervical spine is comprised of seven vertebrae - C1, C2, C3, C4, C5, C6, C7 (often noted as C1-C7) - that begin at the base of the skull and extend down to the thoracic spine. The cervical vertebrae are composed of cylindrical bones (vertebral bodies) that lie in front of the spinal cord, and work with the muscles, joints, ligaments and tendons to provide support, structure and stabilization to the neck.

The first cervical vertebra is unique in that it is a ring that rotates around the second vertebral body (the odontoid). The cervical vertebrae closest to the skull are the smallest. All of the cervical vertebrae are smaller than the vertebrae in the thoracic spine (upper back) and the lumbar spine (lower back).

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Cervical Vertebrae Roles and Responsibilities

Stacked on top of each other with a cervical disc in between them, the cervical vertebrae provide strength and structure to the cervical spine and support the head. The cervical vertebrae also provide for structure and control of certain types of movement in the neck (with the movement described in terms of the two vertebral bodies that are connected), including:

  • Rotation (moving the head from side to side). Most rotation of the neck takes place in the first two segments of the cervical spine, specifically the atlas (C1) and the axis (C2).
  • Flexion (moving the head forward) and extension (moving the head backward). Most flexion and extension movements in the neck are controlled by the C5-C6 and C6-C7 segments of the spine. Unlike the first two cervical vertebrae, the remaining five cervical vertebrae, C3 through C7, are constructed more similarly to the rest of the spine, with three joints making up each vertebral segment (a disc in the front and two facets joints in the back).

For the most part, the cervical vertebrae are extremely durable and resistant to injury. Most neck pain relating to the cervical vertebrae is the result of wear and tear, not an injury.

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