The cervical spine exists in the background of our lives. We might become aware of it as we stretch before a workout or notice tension has collected in that area before a chiropractic adjustment.
But, like so many other parts of the human body, the cervical spine does much more daily than we tend to give it credit.
What is the cervical spine? The cervical spine, referred to as the C-spine, is most commonly known as the neck. It forms the topmost part of the spine, which primarily protects the spinal cord and supports/gives mobility to the head. Though it possesses excellent strength, it also has its vulnerabilities.
The cervical spine is composed of smaller articular (connected by joints) bones, making it the most flexible region of the spine. Because of this, the cervical spine can be more susceptible to injuries and disorders. This can cause a slew of symptoms, from tingling sensations in the arms and legs to chronic neck pain.
Let’s tap into some anatomical features that distinguish the cervical spine from other spinal sections — thoracic spine and lumbar spine.
The cervical spine anatomy consists of:
All work in unison to safeguard the spinal cord housed within and give function to the neck as a whole.
Seven cervical vertebrae (C1-C7) connect the base of the skull to the top of the back. These vertebrae are the smallest vertebral bones in the spinal column. They form a lordotic curve (these vertebrae curve towards the front of the body).
C1 and C2 are called atypical vertebrae because they function quite differently than C3-C6, which are called the typical vertebrae. Then there’s C7, also known as the unique vertebra. It bridges the cervical and thoracic spine.
Each vertebra has a bone extension called the spinous process (the ridge you feel through the skin extending the length of the back), where muscles and ligaments connect.
Soft tissue plays an equally important role in the cervical spine. In between the cervical vertebrae are cervical discs. They cushion the vertebrae and absorb shock between the bones during daily activities. These intervertebral discs consist of a tough outer layer called the annulus fibrosus and a soft interior called the nucleus pulposus.
Between each vertebra and disc, the vertebral endplate helps transfer nutrients from the bone to the disc.
Cervical nerves are woven throughout the cervical spine and carry signals to and from the spinal cord and the body. Also laced throughout are vertebral arteries, which transport about 20% of the brain’s blood supply.
Several muscles surround the cervical spine. They aid with the overall mobility and stability of the head and neck. Tendons attach these muscles to the vertebral column, while ligaments attach one vertebra to the next.
Atlas and Axis
The atlas (C1) and axis (C2) are the top two vertebrae that can be found just beneath the skull. They form the craniocervical junction. They allow all range of motion for the head and neck.
The first cervical vertebra is rather remarkable in a few ways.
First, this small bone is named for the mighty Titan, Atlas. In Greek mythology, he rebels against Zeus and is sentenced to bear the weight of the heavens.
Similarly, the vertebral atlas sustains the weight of the cranium and brain. For this reason, the atlas has been referred to as a cradle because it cradles the skull.
The atlas anchors the occipital bone to the spinal column via the atlanto-occipital joint. This joint allows for much of the forward and backward motion of the head. This first bone of the spine is ring-shaped and surrounds the delicate brainstem.
Interestingly, the atlas is the most misaligned vertebrae. The atlas can shift more easily since it’s the only vertebra without a vertebral body to secure it to the vertebra below. A slight shift may not sound serious; however, if the atlas remains out of place, it can cause:
The second cervical vertebra has a vertical bony protrusion known as the dens or odontoid process. The ring-shaped atlas fits over the dens, creating the atlantoaxial joint, allowing the head’s rotational movement.
Each vertebra consists of a vertebral body and vertebral arch. The vertebral body situated towards the front of the body supports while the anterior vertebral arch, made up of two laminae and pedicles, encloses each vertebra. Vertebrae are connected via the facet joints, enabling flexion (forward and backward motion).
Together, the vertebral body and arch form an enclosed space called the vertebral foramen. The stacked vertebrae with their foramina (plural of foramen) create a tunnel called the vertebral column or spinal canal, which contains the spinal cord.
Cervical Conditions and Injuries
Though the cervical spine is a somewhat small region of the body, its components’ degeneration can significantly affect the body. A list of cervical spine disorders and injuries are as follows:
The above cervical conditions can contribute to the narrowing of the spinal canal and subsequent spinal cord compression called spinal stenosis.
What are the symptoms of cervical spinal stenosis? Symptoms of cervical spinal stenosis are as follows:
What are the treatments for cervical spine disorders? Treatments for cervical spine disorders range from simple improvements of daily activities to surgery. With about 10% of adults suffering from neck pain, it would be worthwhile to invest in healthy habits now.
If you suffer from any of the above injuries and disorders or chronic neck pain, cervical chiropractic could be your route to relief. Though cervical chiropractic care, also called orthospinology, focuses treatment on the cervical spine, benefits are not isolated to that region.
Cervical chiropractic care benefits the whole body. It’s known for treating a wide range of conditions, from headaches and poor posture to fibromyalgia and sciatica.
Dr. Ty Carzoli assesses his patients with x-ray analysis, physical and cognitive exams before administering a neck adjustment. His strategy is to address the source of the issue and track the progress of treatment.
Schedule an appointment at Denver Upper Cervical Chiropractic and discover what Dr. Ty Carzoli can do for you! Call 303-955-8270 or email us here.
A good way to begin addressing the effects of cervical spine degenerative changes would be to analyze your daily activities. What are some common causes that could be contributing to the pain you’ve experienced?
If you can’t identify the issue causing your discomfort, you might consider consulting an orthopedic doctor for their insights. They might advise lifestyle changes, prescribe medication, or recommend surgery to remedy the problem.