Cervical vertebrae overview

The cervical vertebrae are seven bones that make up the uppermost region of the spinal column, directly below the skull. The purpose of the cervical spine is to support the skull and protect the upper spinal cord while allowing for head and neck movement.

Because the spine is so delicately constructed to perform these roles it is also prone to everyday wear and tear that can lead to sources of chronic neck pain. If your life is being affected by one of these conditions learning about the basics of the cervical vertebrae can give you basic knowledge that can help you make informed treatment decisions.

Anatomy of the cervical vertebrae

Like the vertebrae in the lumbar (lower) and thoracic (middle) spine, the cervical vertebrae surround the spinal canal which protects the spinal cord, and include oval-shaped vertebral bodies that are cushioned by the rubbery spinal discs. Since cervical bones are located in the neck and only have to support the weight of the head, they are much smaller than most of the other bones within the spinal column.

The cervical vertebrae, including the top two bones called the atlas and axis, are subject to a number of disorders, such as spinal stenosis and spondylosis. Many spine conditions aren’t painful by themselves but can cause issues if displaced anatomy compresses on a nerve. Symptoms of nerve compression in the cervical spine include:

  • Neck soreness or stiffness
  • Burning of shooting pain down the length of the nerve
  • Tingling, numbness and muscle weakness in the shoulders, arms and hands

Conditions affecting the cervical bones commonly occur as a result of aging, as bone density and disc elasticity deteriorate over time. Injury and accidents can also contribute to cervical vertebrae disorders.

Treating issues with the cervical vertebrae

If you are experiencing pain and discomfort in your neck, it’s important to see a physician early for accurate diagnosis and treatment. He or she can perform a physical and neurological exam to diagnose your neck pain, and may order imaging tests such as an X-ray, MRI or CT scan. Depending on the severity of damage to your cervical vertebrae, treatment will generally begin conservatively. This can include hot and cold therapy, massage and over-the-counter or prescription medication. In cases where conservative treatment does not bring improvement after weeks or months, surgery may be considered.

If your physician recommends surgery as a treatment option for your neck pain, consider calling Laser Spine Institute to learn more about our minimally invasive approach to spine surgery. These procedures are an alternative to traditional open neck and back surgery, offering our patients an outpatient experience that leads to a shorter recovery period^ with less scarring.

Contact us today for a no-cost MRI review* to see if you may be a candidate for one of our procedures.