The typical human spine contains 33 vertebrae, which are bone segments stacked from the base of the skull to the bottom of the back. These segments combine to form the infrastructure of the spinal column, which supports the upper body and protects the spinal cord – the central nervous system’s primary pathway for signals to and from the brain.

Vertebral function

In addition to serving as a conduit for the central nervous system and as a base for muscles, tendons and ligaments, the anatomical structure of the vertebrae dictates the range of motion of the head, torso and pelvic area. Small vertebrae in the neck allow the head to nod and rotate. Larger, more rigid vertebrae lend stability to the upper and middle back, while those in the lower back are more flexible and allow for bending and twisting. The vertebrae are separated and cushioned by spongy intervertebral discs, which also aid in flexibility.

Spinal regions

The spine is divided into five regions:

  • Cervical vertebrae (neck) – the seven bone segments (C1 to C7) that support the head
  • Thoracic vertebrae (middle back) – the 12 segments (T1 to T12) that serve as a base for the ribs
  • Lumbar vertebrae (lower back) – the four to six segments (L1 to L6) that bear most of the body’s weight
  • Sacrum (pelvis) – a plate-like fusion of five segments (S1 to S5)
  • Coccyx (tailbone) – the three to five small, fused bones at the bottom of the spine

Spinal conditions and symptom management

Each of these regions is vulnerable in varying degrees to spinal conditions that can cause neck or back pain. More than 80 percent of Americans experience neck or back pain at some point, but symptoms usually can be managed using conservative treatment such as physical therapy and pain medication.

Occasionally, conservative treatment is not enough and a physician might present surgery as an option. If this happens to you, contact Laser Spine Institute for a review of your MRI or CT scan to determine whether you are a candidate for any of the minimally invasive, outpatient procedures we offer to treat neck and back pain.