Vertebrae — definition and function

The vertebra is one of the most important components of the spine. Each spine is comprised of 33 individual vertebras. When stacked together, the vertebrae create the infrastructure of the spine, protecting the nerves and the spinal cord — the central nervous system’s primary pathway for signals to and from the brain.

Anatomical overview of the spine and the vertebrae

A vertebra is a small bone that stacks on top of one another to form the spine. There are 33 vertebras in the spine, and three different sections of the spine with varying functions. In between each vertebra is a disc and a joint. The discs and joints allow the vertebrae to move and bend freely without pain.

The vertebrae have three main purposes: support the weight of the body, protect the spinal cord and the central nervous system and attach the ligaments in the spine to allow flexibility and movement.

There are three main sections of vertebrae in the spine, each with a specific purpose and function:

  • Cervical vertebrae (neck) — The cervical vertebrae include the first seven vertebrae of the spine that extend from the base of your head to the bottom of your neck. The purpose of these vertebrae is to provide support and stabilization for the neck. If one of the nerves in the cervical vertebral column is impacted, a radiating pain might occur in the back of the head, neck or jaw.
  • Thoracic vertebrae (middle back) — The vertebrae in the middle of the spine work together to stabilize and support the rib cage and middle of the body. There is very limited mobility in the thoracic spine because the vertebrae are also attached to the ribcage. For this reason, there are very few instances of vertebral disease in the thoracic vertebrae.
  • Lumbar vertebrae (lower back) — The lumbar vertebrae are responsible for supporting and stabilizing the majority of the body’s weight. The lumbar vertebrae suffer the most wear and tear and compression over the years due to continual bending and twisting motions and sometimes weight gain. Most spine conditions occur in the lumbar spine for this reason.

The vertebrae also come together to form the outer protection for the spinal canal, through which the spinal cord and nerve roots run from the head to the tailbone.

Spinal conditions related to a diseased vertebra

While some spine conditions focus on the discs and joints between the vertebrae, other conditions are caused by the compression or deterioration of a vertebra in the spine. These conditions include:

There are several other spine conditions associated with the deterioration of a vertebra. These conditions can be treated with conservative or surgical treatment, depending on the severity of the condition.

At Laser Spine Institute, our care team is here to help guide you through the treatment options available for your spine condition so you can make the best decision for your needs. If you have a spine condition due to a diseased vertebra, we encourage you to reach out to us and learn more about the treatment options available to you.