The human spine is traditionally divided into a few basic groups. Starting from the tailbone there are five lumbar vertebrae, bones which are large, thick, and arc inwards towards the stomach. Above them are the twelve thoracic vertebrae which anchor the ribcage in place and arc outwards to provide it with a stable sphere-like shape.
Finally, there’s the seven cervical vertebrae. The cervical spine curves outward again so that the head can balance easily above the shoulders, and the vertebrae are smaller than the other two groups both because they only have to bear the weight of the head and so that they can give the neck the agility it needs to act as the heads swivel.
Atlas And Axis
The uppermost cervical vertebra, C1, carries the nickname Atlas. Much like how its namesake is famous for holding the celestial sphere above Earth, C1 has the job of connecting the much larger skull to the rest of the body. Atlas is also unique in that it has no body: all true vertebrae are based around a ring called the vertebral foramen, but all the other vertebrae have a thick oval at one end which allows them to connect to each other. By contrast, C1 is just a ring, and it connects to C2, Axis, thanks to a peg called the odontoid process.
Axis gets its name because it’s the vertebra on which the head swivels. The unique connection between Atlas and Axis is the reason why you can look so far to the left and right, and it’s the reason why your head has such a wide range of motion despite being mounted to only seven vertebrae.
The remaining cervical vertebrae all share a similar shape and design:
- A large oval body to serve as a connector with two articular facets for additional connection points
- An even larger gap, or vertebral foramen, to house and protect the spinal cord
- Two smaller gaps, or transverse foramina, which protect arteries, veins, and a few smaller nerve bundles that don’t make as long a trip as the spinal cord
- A spike, or spinous process, which extends toward the back and serves as an anchor for the muscles of the neck
All of these vertebrae are connected by intervertebral discs, special cushions made of tough fibrous cartilage on the outside with a special shock-absorbing gel on the inside. This gel is the reason why your head doesn’t shake to pieces when you go for a walk, but unfortunately these discs tend to decay with time.
While the lumbar spine is probably the most at risk for disorders and diseases thanks to all the weight it carries, the cervical spine is actually in second place: the rigidness of the ribcage keeps the thoracic spine in pretty good shape.
Intervertebral discs usually remain in good condition throughout the first 40 years of a person’s life, but all that changes throughout the decades afterwards. The gel-filled discs seem to fail more and more frequently in old age, falling to degenerative disc disorder or DDD. Cervical discs sometimes fail due to a direct injury, but more often the wear and tear of time will simply take its toll.
The typical way you can tell you have DDD is if you get a stiffness or a soreness in your neck that simply won’t go away. This stiffness doesn’t have to go on forever, though: a degenerated disc can recover to full strength through the simple application of over-the-counter painkillers and regular stretching exercises.
Regular visits to a chiropractor can help, too. DDD is often the result of poor neck and back posture, posture which doesn’t follow the natural curves and straight lines of the spine and thus puts added stress on the vertebrae and the rest of the body. That’s why chiropractic biophysics techniques are designed to retrain the body into maintaining good posture and gently exercise the muscles in your neck and back which are needed to do this.
Then again, sometimes a disc is too far gone to fix with the conservative approach. If a cervical disc degenerates too far, your only real option for relief after a certain point is surgery. Still, you’ll have a few different options depending on what needs to move and whether the degenerated disc has led to any other complications.
Another cervical spine disease is the herniated disc, something that used to be called a slipped disc before we realized that the disc wasn’t moving so much as the gel inside. A herniated disc is one that’s sprung a leak and has begun squeezing its gel into the spinal cord. Since the spinal cord isn’t designed with any extra room in mind, this added liquid pinches the nerves within the cord, potentially leading to pain shooting down your arm or even throughout the body, nausea, and weakness.
Fortunately, a herniation like this is rarely a long-term problem. The initial pain may get worse for a while as the spinal cord inflames in response to the intrusion, but you can reduce this problem with anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen. Eventually, though, the gel will dissipate and you’ll be able to move your neck again without hurting something.
Still, you’ll want to be cautious in the weeks afterwards. What happened once might happen again, so it may be a good idea to engage in neck exercises and to avoid anything that would give your head a bumpy ride like a snowmobile or an off-road vehicle. You may also want to visit a chiropractor or a physical therapist who can apply heat packs to your neck and gently manipulate it to get any kinks out that may have been responsible for your injury.
The cervical spine is an amazing array of bones that has no real equal throughout the rest of the body. Considering how important it is to your head and to the rest of your body, you need to treat your cervical spine right, and if you live in Vancouver a great way to do that is to visit Dr. Stuart Kilian of Advantage Chiropractic.