The vertebral column is made up of 33 bones, called vertebrae, which are stacked in a slightly curved formation from the base of the skull through the entire length of the back.
In addition to skeletal support, the vertebral column provides protection for the most important element within the spinal anatomy, the spinal cord.
The regions of the spine are named after the five categories of vertebrae. From top to bottom, the categories are the:
- Cervical spine
- Thoracic spine
- Lumbar spine
While a normal, healthy spine appears to run in a straight line when viewed from the front or back, when viewed from the side a distinctive “S” shape is discernable. In fact, curvature occurs within each of the upper three regions, as well as within the bottom-most sacrococcygeal segment. Curvature allows for energy absorption throughout the spinal column during physical activities like walking or running.
The vertebrae grouped within the three upper regions of the vertebral column – the cervical vertebrae, the thoracic vertebrae and the lumbar vertebrae – are shaped differently from each other and serve different functions. Here is a brief breakdown of the roles of the three main regions of the vertebral column (with their abbreviated names):
- Cervical (C1 to C7 vertebrae) – located at the top of the spine, these smaller, more flexible vertebrae encase the brain stem, support the head and allow for head and neck movement
- Thoracic (T1 to T12 vertebrae) – located in the midsection, these larger, less flexible vertebrae serve as anchors for the ribs and as skeletal support for the body
- Lumbar (L1 to L5 vertebrae) – located in the lower back, these largest of the vertebrae support much of the body’s weight and allow for bending at the waist and trunk rotation
Also located along the vertebral column are the intervertebral discs, which are circular wedges of cartilage that separate and cushion the bony vertebrae. Most neck and back pain along the vertebral column is caused by abnormalities within the cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower) spinal regions, and these abnormalities are, in turn, often related to conditions that cause disc degeneration, such as osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease. Furthermore, nerve roots that exit the spinal cord up and down the vertebral column can become irritated or compressed in the presence of disc degeneration.
Contact Laser Spine Institute for a free review of your MRI or CT scan and to learn how one of our minimally invasive, outpatient procedures may be able to help you find meaningful relief from neck or back pain in your vertebral column.