What Is the Cervical Spine?

What Is the Cervical Spine?

At first glance, your spine appears to be one continuous line of backbone that travels from the base of your skull to the roughly triangular shaped sacrum and coccyx (tailbone) region. Take a second look, however, and you’ll find that each of the five segments of the spine is quite different than the one above.

The team at Yale Neurosurgery New London, led by board-certified neurosurgeon Dr. Patrick Doherty, offers a quick anatomy lesson on the spine. Learn what makes the cervical spine different from the rest of your backbone and why it’s prone to injury.

Understanding spinal segments and the roles they play

The spine is a complex network of bones, joints, and soft tissues that work together to provide the strength and flexibility you need for movement. It also contains and protects the spinal nerves that carry information from your brain to the rest of your body.

Although it functions as a unified structure, the spine contains five distinct segments:

Depending on its location, each of these segments plays a different role in spinal stability and function.

The thoracic spine, for instance, has very little mobility but connects to the rib cage and thus helps protect the heart and lungs. 

Much more mobile than the thoracic spine, the lumbar spine supports the weight of your torso and is prone to injury, especially muscular strain, since it’s engaged whenever you bend or twist at the waist.

The role of your cervical spine

Despite its relatively short length, the cervical spine is arguably the most complex of the five spinal segments due to the sheer number of bones and soft-tissue structures it contains.

Your neck is the most mobile portion of your backbone and contains seven of the 33 stacked bones (vertebrae) that form the spinal column. Each is separated by an intervertebral disc that acts as a cushion between the bones.

The cervical vertebrae are the thinnest vertebral bones in the spine and become progressively smaller the closer they get to the skull. Despite their diminutive size, however, the cervical vertebrae support the weight of your head, typically about 10-12 pounds.

Other components of your cervical spine include a pair of facet joints at the back of each vertebral body, one per side. Present only in the cervical spine, six of the seven vertebrae also have holes for arteries that carry blood to the upper spinal cord and brain.

Eight pairs of nerves emerge from the cervical portion of the spine. They control motor function (movement) and sensation in the head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, and diaphragm. 

Numerous muscles and tendons that attach to the cervical spine provide support for your neck and enable movement of the head, neck, shoulders, and upper back.

With so many nerves, bones, joints, and other structures contained in such a small space, as well as the workload your neck experiences every day, it’s not surprising that neck pain is a frequent health concern.

What causes neck pain and how do you treat it?

Like other areas of the spine, your neck is susceptible to injury and various conditions that may cause pain, including:

If you have neck pain, Dr. Doherty performs a thorough evaluation and develops a treatment strategy based on the severity and underlying cause of your symptoms.

He generally begins with conservative therapies such as:

Should these measures fail, Dr. Doherty may recommend neck surgery, including minimally invasive robotic surgery, to resolve your neck pain and correct the underlying issue.

For help with your neck pain or for more information regarding any of the services we offer, schedule an appointment with us at Yale Neurosurgery New London in New London, Connecticut. 

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