Cervical Spine: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on September 28, 2022
4 min read

A long, flexible column extending through most of your upper body, the spinal column consists of seven bones called vertebrae. The first vertebra, called C1 or atlas, can be found at the base of your skull and is responsible for holding your head upright. The second vertebra, C2 (axis), allows C1 to pivot against it so you can move your head side-to-side.

Connected at the back of the bone by facet joints, your seven cervical vertebrae collectively allow for various motions of your neck and act as shock absorbers whenever your spine moves freely. The vertebrae may be affected, though, by conditions like disc disease or arthritis.

Your spinal cord also plays a vital role in controlling all aspects of your body's functions by sending and receiving messages from and to your brain. The cervical spine has the same backward C-shape as the lumbar spine but is much more flexible.

Want to learn more about the functions of your cervical spine? Keep reading to find out!

Several essential functions are performed by your cervical spine, including the following:

Providing protection for your spinal column: Extending from the brain and running through the cervical and thoracic spine, your spinal cord encompasses a bundle of nerves. The stacked vertebrae of your spine keep these nerves shielded inside a protective central canal known as the spinal canal.

Supporting the head and allowing for its range of motion: The average weight of an adult head is between 10 and 13 pounds, and your cervical spine supports this weight while also allowing the head to move freely. Your cervical spine gives your neck the flexibility to move forward or backward or to bend from side to side.

Creating a passageway for vertebral arteries: Vertebral arteries carry blood to the brain via small holes in the cervical spine that provide them with a safe passageway to facilitate blood flow. This is the only section of the spine that has these openings. The cervical spine is one of the most complex regions in your body because it contains many critical nerves, blood vessels, and joints.

Neck pain or pain in the head, shoulders, jaw, arms, or legs, and feelings of numbness or weakness are all common symptoms that may arise from cervical spine disorder.

These cervical spine disorders typically arise from injury or the degeneration of the structures in the spine. From smoking to stress, aging, and standard "wear and tear" over the years, various problems may arise that could affect the health of your cervical spine.

Here are some examples of the conditions and disorders that may arise from cervical spine damage:

Cervical radiculopathy: When cervical vertebrae pinch a nerve, you may experience symptoms like tingling, numbness, or weakness in your arm, hands, or fingers. These sensations may spread or remain local.

Cervical spinal stenosis: When your spinal canal narrows around the spinal cord, that reduces the amount of space available for your spinal cord and nerves. As a result, your spinal cord or nerves may become irritated.

If you're experiencing symptoms of a cervical spine disorder, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider as soon as possible. 

Various cervical spine disorders, conditions, and neck problems can be addressed with surgery. When these conditions put pressure on the spinal cord or nerves coming from the spine, surgery may be recommended to reverse trauma or resolve an issue with instability.

Here are some common surgical treatment options for those with cervical spine conditions:

Cervical spinal decompression surgery: This alleviates pain caused by pinched nerves, pressure, or compression of your spinal cord. Your surgeon removes a portion of a disc to take pressure off a nerve root, resulting in increased comfort and mobility.

Cervical laminectomy: To remove excessive pressure from nerve roots, your surgeon will remove a portion of the vertebral bone called the lamina to make more room for your spinal cord and spinal nerve.

Posterior Microdiscectomy: Using a microscope, your surgeon will remove disc material from under the nerve root. This procedure is done through a small incision in the back of your neck. This procedure has shown to be effective in treating leg pain and is often performed on those with large soft disc herniations.

Cervical spinal fusion: This surgery may result in some lost flexibility, but it will limit painful symptoms and stabilize the spine. To do so, your surgeon will remove the spinal discs between two or more vertebrae and permanently connect them.

Non-surgical and minimally invasive treatment options are available to treat many conditions affecting the cervical spine. Depending on the cause and severity of your cervical spine issue, you may be eligible for one of these options. Your healthcare provider may also recommend less invasive options like ice, rest, heat, or avoiding strenuous exercise if symptoms of your conditions are not severe.