Vertebral column

The vertebral column, another term for the spine, is made of 32 to 34 bones, called vertebrae, which are stacked from the tailbone all the way up to the base of the skull. In addition to the vertebrae, the vertebral column consists of other spinal anatomy such as discs and joints to enable movement. The primary role of the spine is to protect the spinal cord which connects the brain to the rest of the body to enable movement and sensation.

The spine is typically divided into five regions based on the size, structure and role of the vertebrae they contain. From top to bottom, the categories are the:

  • Cervical spine
  • Thoracic spine
  • Lumbar spine
  • Sacrum
  • Coccyx

Segments of the vertebral column

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):

  • The cervical region (C1 to C7 vertebrae) is 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.
  • The thoracic region (T1 to T12 vertebrae) is located in the midsection. These larger, less flexible vertebrae serve as anchors for the ribs and as skeletal support for the body.
  • The lumbar region (L1 to L5 vertebrae) is located in the lower back. These are the largest of the vertebrae and support much of the body’s weight. They allow the bending motion at the waist and rotation in the midsection.

Located between each of the vertebrae in these parts of the spine is a round disc made of cartilage that helps the vertebral column absorb shock from movements like bending and flexing.

Conditions affecting the vertebral column

Many cases of neck and back pain are caused by conditions within the cervical and lumbar spinal regions because they are responsible for carrying so much of the body’s weight. These conditions, including bulging and herniated discs as well as spinal arthritis, can put pressure on the spinal cord or a nerve root, causing painful symptoms.

Initial treatment for conditions affecting the vertebral column usually consists of conservative methods such as physical therapy, massage, hot and cold compresses and pain medication. Surgery is usually considered when weeks or months of these treatments do not bring the relief needed to return to regular activity.

If you are considering surgery, but concerned about the risks that come with a traditional open back procedure, Laser Spine Institute offers an alternative. Our minimally invasive spine surgery uses a small, muscle-sparing incision to access the spine, resulting in a shorter recovery time for our patients.^

Contact Laser Spine Institute for your no-cost MRI review* to find out if you are a candidate for one of our minimally invasive outpatient procedures that can help you find lasting relief from neck or back pain in your vertebral column.