The cervical spine is another name for the uppermost portion of the human spine, which runs through the neck. Made up of the first seven vertebrae in the spinal column, it begins at the base of the skull and runs to the thoracic spine, which begins at the chest. Medical professionals refer to the cervical vertebrae, from the top down, as C1 through C7.
The first vertebra, on which the skull rests, is also known as the atlas or C1. The atlas has a larger main opening than other vertebrae because the spinal cord is largest at the base of the skull, where it connects to the brain.
Physicians refer to the second vertebra as the axis or C2. It is topped by a bony knob called the dens, which fits into a hole at the bottom of the atlas. The axis is responsible for the flexibility of the neck and its ability to turn left and right.
C3 through C6 are largely similar to each other in appearance. The nerves attached to these vertebrae help control body parts including the diaphragm, arm muscles, and the hands. C7, on the other hand, also known as the vertebra prominens, is taller than the other six vertebrae in the cervical spine.
The neck portion of the spine, C1 through C7, is unique because it curves slightly inward and has two additional holes, called transverse processes, located on each side of the main spinal cord opening. The transverse processes run parallel to the spinal cord and are passages for arteries that run through each side of the neck, carrying blood to the back of the brain.
Like other areas of the spine, the cervical spine can become injured and suffer from age-related degeneration or disease. One disorder unique to this region is cervical spinal stenosis, in which the opening for the spinal cord narrows. This may cause compression or injury to the spinal cord, resulting in abnormal function. Symptoms include pain, numbness, and stiffness in the neck and limbs. Medical professionals use extensive testing, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), X-rays, and blood tests, to identify the disorder. While cervical spinal stenosis can be treated with medication, exercise, and physical therapy, surgery is sometimes needed to alleviate symptoms.
A problem common in this part of the spine is cervical herniation or herniated disc, also known as a slipped disc or ruptured disc. This occurs when the annulus fibrosis, a cushioning disc of tissue, is misaligned, torn, or ruptured. Causes include chronic poor posture, degeneration of the discs, or sudden trauma, such as whiplash. Symptoms of a cervical disc problem also include numbness, tingling, and pain in the neck, shoulders, or arms.
It is important that patients with symptoms of a cervical spine injury or disorder seek medical treatment, particularly if numbness and pain are accompanied by difficulty with fine motor skills, trouble walking, and jolting pain in the torso. Patients with these severe symptoms should be evaluated for spinal cord compression, a serious condition that can lead to incontinence and loss of mobility.
Cervical spine surgery is used to relieve symptoms, correct abnormal motion of the spine, and improve nerve function. Spinal decompression surgery, wherein parts of the vertebra or interior tissues are removed, is used to widen a narrowed spinal cord opening. Fusion surgery uses bone grafts or medical implants to join vertebrae together to provide more stability to the spine.