Vertebrae — definition and function

The vertebrae are critical components of the spine. Each spine is comprised of 33 vertebrae that when stacked together form the infrastructure of the spinal column. In addition to supporting the upper body, the vertebrae protect the nerves and the spinal cord, which is the primary pathway for signals to and from the brain.

Overview of the spine and the vertebrae

The vertebrae have three main purposes: support the weight of the body, protect the spinal cord and attach the ligaments and muscles to the spine to allow flexibility and movement. Each vertebra consists of a main vertebral body that forms the spinal column and a vertebral arch extending off the back of the body that helps to form the central spinal canal. It is this canal that protects the spinal cord as it travels from the brain to the rest of the body. The vertebrae are linked together with facet joints that extend off the top and bottom of the body and are cushioned by rubbery discs that lay in between them.

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

  • Cervical (upper) vertebrae. 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, symptoms can occur in the neck, head, shoulders and arms.
  • Thoracic (middle) vertebrae. The vertebrae in the middle of the spine work together to stabilize and support the rib cage and middle of the body. Since there is more rigidity in the thoracic spine because the vertebrae are also attached to the ribcage, there are very few instances of conditions affecting the thoracic vertebrae.
  • Lumbar (lumbar) vertebrae. 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.

Spinal conditions affecting the vertebrae

Spine conditions can affect both the vertebrae and the discs and joints between them. These conditions include:

These conditions can be treated with conservative or surgical treatment, depending on the severity of the condition.

At Laser Spine Institute, our caring 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 are exploring your treatment options for a spine condition affecting your vertebrae or other parts of the spinal column, contact us today to learn more. Our minimally invasive spine surgery is a safer and effective alternative^ to traditional open neck or back procedures.

To help you determine if you are a potential candidate for one of our minimally invasive procedures, we’re happy to provide a free MRI review.*