Atlas (C1) — overview of conditions and treatment

The uppermost cervical (neck) vertebra is known as the atlas (C1), named for the mythological figure Atlas who has to support the world on his shoulders. It has this name because this bone connects the spine to the skull and is essential to movement and support of the head.

The atlas (C1) and the second vertebra down — the axis (C2) — work together to protect the brain stem and help movements like shaking or rotating the head.

The atlas is shaped like a ring. Unlike other vertebrae, it has no vertebral body. Two masses of bone, called lateral masses, are located on each side and support the weight of the skull. Because of the flexibility of the cervical spine, the atlas and other cervical vertebrae are vulnerable to degenerative conditions that occur with normal wear and tear over time.

Spine conditions related to the atlas vertebra

Spinal conditions that can affect the atlas as well as the other vertebrae of the cervical spine include:

  • Degenerative disc disease — This is diminished water and protein content within the discs that causes deterioration, also considered a normal part of aging.
  • Herniated disc — This is a tear or rupture in the outer wall of the disc that leads to spilled disc matter in the spinal canal.
  • Bulging disc — A buging disc is the protrusion of a disc into the spinal canal.
  • Pinched nerve — This is compression of a nerve root or the spinal cord itself.
  • Spinal stenosis — Stenosis is the narrowing of the spinal canal from a spine condition.
  • Spinal osteoarthritis — This is a degenerative joint condition that can produce bone spurs.
  • Spinal injury — Injuries to the spine can include a fracture of the atlas due to sudden injury.

Surgery isn’t always necessary to treat conditions affecting the atlas. After diagnosis, many patients find relief with a course of conservative treatment methods such as physical therapy, pain medication, exercise or chiropractic care. Surgery usually becomes an option if weeks or months of comprehensive treatment does not bring improvement in symptoms and function.

Laser Spine Institute treatment options

Laser Spine Institute offers an alternative to traditional open spine surgery to treat conditions affecting the atlas. The surgeons at Laser Spine Institute perform minimally invasive outpatient procedures with a small, muscle-sparing incision to help patients find relief from chronic neck and back pain. Benefits of our procedures include a shorter recovery time,^ less scarring and reduced risk of infection.

Contact Laser Spine Institute for a no-cost MRI review* to see if you may be a candidate for one of our minimally invasive spine procedures.