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A complete guide to the anatomy and function of the spine

The spinal column (vertebrae column) extends from the skull to the pelvis and consists of 33 different vertebrae. This column is then subdivided into the Cervical, Thoracic, lumbar, Sacrum and Coccyx regions.

Lateral and Posterior Views of the Spinal Column

The spine has a number of key functions:


The spinal column encases the spinal cord and nerve roots which transfer messages up and down the body. Any damage here can compromise your overall wellbeing should messages fail to be transmitted successfully to and from the brain.

Flexibility and Mobility

Our range of motion is determined by our spine, offering Flexion (forward bending), Extension (backward bending), Side bending (left and right) and Rotation (left and right). It also serves to offer a variety of the aforementioned combinations which allows us to do everything from rolling over in bed to getting up in the morning, walking down the stairs and running for the bus to avoid being late.

Structural Support

Without our spine we couldn’t sit up, stand, walk or run – offering a structural support for the head, shoulders and chest. It also serves to connect together the upper and lower body with the spinal column encasing the essential cord and nerve roots.

As well as connecting the upper and lower body the spinal column also works to help balance the body and help with weight distribution.

Base for attachment

 The spinal column serves as a connecting device, with ligaments, tendons and muscles all connecting and attaching to the spine. Without this there would be no anchor.

What is the spinal cord?

The hollow spinal canal contains the spinal cord fat, connective tissue and bloody supply for the cord. It originates from beneath the brain stem and extends to L1 and is 18 inches in length and the thickness of your thumb.

Detailed look at the Spinal Cord

Neck (Cervical) Anatomy

The cervical spine runs from C1 to C7 consisting of 7 vertebrae and 8 pairs of cervical nerves. These vertebrae are then sub-divided into two further sections in that of the Upper (C1 Atlas and C2 Axis) and the Lower (C3 to C7). The overall purpose of this area is to protect the spinal cord, support the skull and enable a wide range of functional movement.

C1 and C2 are the most unique of the vertebrae within the spine due their design, with C1 being circular in design and open and C2 effectively an upside down ‘T’ which fits into C1. The main rotation of the head is performed in the atlantoaxial segment between the first and second vertebrae with the odontoid peg acting as an axis of rotation.

Atlas C1 Superior and Inferior Views Atlas C1
Atlas C2 Anterior and Posterosuperior Views Atlas C2

Following trauma incidents such as car crashes it is typically the cervical region which is at the greatest risk and why paramedics will fit a rigid collar to the patient to protect the neck prior to an x-ray and a complete diagnosis. In the aftermath of such an incident protection of the neck is important to minimise the risk of extreme damage or worse.

What does the spine look like?

The x-ray highlights the first seven vertebrae moving from the base of the skull along with highlighting the disc spaces and articular facets.

Spinal Column X-Ray

For more information on the spine and its functionality and associated conditions affecting it you can view this video from www.spine-health.com

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