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My upper back – the construction of the cervical spine

Written by Theresia Lechner
Knöcherner Aufbau der Halswirbelsäule gezeichnet mit Bezugspunkt Kopf

The upper part of your spine consists of just a few vertebraeNonetheless, it is still incredibly versatile when it comes to agility. In this article you will learn more about your cervical spine. With this new information you will become an expert on the construction of the cervical spine. In this way, you will be contributing to a healthy relationship between you and your neck.

Seven in one stroke

Your cervical spine (i.e. C spine) consists of a total of 7 vertebrae and is a very powerful weightlifter. By the way, doctors and therapists count vertebrae from top to bottom. That is why you will find the affected vertebra written as a (cervical) with the corresponding number (C1, C2, C3 etc.) on a prescription or discharge summary, for example. Like in your thoracic spine, a vertebra consists of [1]:

  • A vertebral body (1*)
  • A spinous process (2*)
  • Two transverse processes (3*)
  • A vertebral arch (4*)
Schematischer Aufbau eines Halswirbels mit Beschriftung der Bestandteile
Schematic construction of a vertebra with a vertebral body (1*), a spinous process (2*), two transverse processes (3*), a vertebral arch (4*) and the spinal canal (5*)

Unlike in the thoracic spine and lumbar spine, the individual vertebrae differ quite considerably. First and foremost is the first vertebra: the atlas. Like its namesake from Greek mythology, who carried the firmament on his shoulders, the first neck vertebra also carries a fair bit of weight. Approx. 6 kilogramsto be precise. Because, this is how much a human head weighs on average. But the atlas is never just a static support for our skull [1].

Keeping everything in sight

Quite the opposite, in fact. Together with your second neck vertebra – the axis and the rest of your cervical vertebrae – it provides you with a huge range of flexibility in all directions. In this way, when it comes to the degree of agility of your spine, your cervical spine is the absolute front runner. This is the reason why you can turn your head by 50 degrees, bend it forwards by 65 degrees, and bend it backwards by 40 degrees [1]. So another reason not to spend all day looking straight ahead at a screen.

The stars of your cervical spine

You can understand the construction of your cervical spine even better if you feel it yourself. To do so, feel your spinous processes. Just move your fingers gently across your cervical spine. If you also bend your head slightly forwards, you will be able to feel one elevation quite clearly. This is the spinous process of your 7th neck vertebra: the prominens or C7. It marks the junction of your cervical spine and your thoracic spine. As with the rest of your spine, there are intervertebral discs between the 2nd and 7th vertebral bodies of the cervical spine. They cushion pressure and impact that comes from above [1].

Finger deutet auf den siebten Halswirbel gezeichnet
This is where you will find your 7th neck vertebra

Secure tunnel for your spinal cord

In addition to your intervertebral discs, your spinal cord is also packed securely into your cervical spine. Between each vertebral body and each spinous process in the thoracic spine, there is an arch that forms a protected tunnel for your spinal cord. When doctors talk about the entirety of these arches, they call it the spinal canal (5*)[1].

Please bear in mind that your spine and its components don’t simply slide around in the body. On the contrary, they are firmly connected and conjoined with other very important structures:

  • Muscles
  • Fasciae
  • Ligaments

As a result, all of the components together form a very robust and simultaneously flexible basic structure [1].

Back up your knowledge

By the way, you won’t find an intervertebral disc between the first two neck vertebrae – the atlas and axis. The atlas also doesn’t have a spinous process and is therefore difficult to feel from the outside [1].

Important to note: 
This article contains general recommendations only and must not be used for self-diagnosing or self-treatment. It is not a replacement for visiting your GP.

[1] Schünke, M. ; Schulte, E.; Schumacher,U.(2007): Prometheus. LernAtlas der Anatomie. 2. Aufl. Stuttgart: Georg Thieme Verlag.