The uppermost cervical vertebra is known as the atlas (C1), named for the mythological figure charged with supporting the globe on his shoulders.
The atlas combines with the axis (C2), the second cervical vertebra, to form the joint that connects the skull and the spine.
Together, the atlas (C1) and axis (C2) provide support for the skull, protect the brain stem and aid in movements like shaking the head and head rotation.
The atlas is shaped like a ring. Unlike other vertebrae, it has no vertebral body (centrum). Two masses of bone, called lateral masses, are located on the sides and support the weight of the skull. Because of the flexibility of the cervical spine (neck), the atlas and other cervical vertebrae are vulnerable to degenerative conditions that occur with normal wear and tear over time.
Spinal conditions that can affect the atlas (C1) or the other vertebrae of the cervical spine include:
- Degenerative disc disease – diminished water and protein content within the discs, a normal part of aging
- Herniated disc – a tear or rupture in the outer wall of the disc, spilling disc matter into the spinal canal
- Bulging disc – a contained protrusion of disc matter into the spinal canal
- Pinched nerve – an impingement of a nerve root in the spinal column
- Spinal stenosis – a narrowing of the spinal canal
- Osteoarthritis – a degenerative joint condition that can produce bone spurs
- Spinal injury – a fracture of the atlas is called a Jefferson fracture, named for the 20th century British neurosurgeon, Sir Geoffrey Jefferson
Rarely is surgery necessary to treat conditions that affect the atlas. Most conditions can be treated conservatively, using methods such as physical therapy, pain medication, exercise or chiropractic therapy. Occasionally, though, chronic upper body discomfort or neck pain associated with the atlas and the other cervical vertebrae might not respond to weeks or months of conservative treatment, and a physician might present surgery as an option.
Laser Spine Institute offers more effective alternatives to the long recovery associated with traditional open spine surgery to treat conditions with the atlas. The surgeons at Laser Spine Institute perform minimally invasive, outpatient procedures to help patients find relief from neck and back pain. Contact Laser Spine Institute to learn more, or for a free review of your MRI or CT scan.