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In Depth: Vertebrae and Nerves

The vertebrae that make up the cervical spine are the smallest seven within the spinal column. These bones give the neck structure, support the skull, and protect the spinal cord, among other functions.

Each vertebra is shaped like an odd Mardi Gras mask when viewed from the top. A protrusion on the backside called the spinous process extends backward and slightly downward. This is where ligaments and muscles attach to the vertebra.

The bodies of the vertebrae are connected to one another. Many ligaments, or bands of connective tissue, wrap around the spinal column and connect its vertebrae. They also prevent excessive movement that could damage the spinal column.

Intervertebral discs, small cartilage cushions, pad the spaces between the vertebrae. The discs allow movement of the spinal column and function like shock absorbers.

A letter and number identify vertebrae. In the cervical column, the vertebrae are C1 through C7. The “C” stands for “cervical.”

All of the cervical vertebrae flex and extend the neck, but some have additional special functions, including:

  • C1: The first vertebra in the column closest to the skull is also known as the atlas. It forms the joint that connects the skull and the spinal column.
  • C2: Also known as the axis, it creates a pivot that allows C1 to rotate, thus giving the head greater range of motion.
  • C7: The last of the cervical vertebrae, C7 has an extra-long spinous process. This is one of the bones that protrude through the skin at the back of the neck.

Fracture to any vertebra is considered a medical emergency, but damage to the cervical vertebrae is especially critical.   Fracture and injury to the C2 vertebra is common with high-force trauma, and may cause death or paralysis.

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