The Vertebral Column

General Characteristics of the Spine

The spine is made of vertebrae that link together to protect the spinal cord.

Learning Objectives

Describe the structure of the vertebral column

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The main functions of the vertebral bones are for structure ( posture ) and protection of the spinal cord.
  • The spine is split into five regions: the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, and coccyx.
  • The vertebrae of the sacrum and coccyx are fused, but those of the cervical, thoracic, and lumber regions are free to articulate.
  • Viewed laterally, the vertebral column presents several curves that correspond to the column’s different regions—the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral.

Key Terms

  • vertebral column: The series of vertebrae that protect the spinal cord; the spinal column.
  • vertebrae: The bones that make up the spinal column.
This is a profile view of the spine with its four regions identified. These are called, from the top of the spine to its base, the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and pelvic regions.

Human vertebral column: The vertebral column has 33 bones. Each color represents a section of the column.

The vertebral column (also known as the backbone or spine), is a tall, thin organ located dorsally that extends from the base of the spine to the pelvis. It protects the spinal cord and provides a key attachment point for numerous muscle groups.

There are 33 vertebrae in the human spine that are split into four regions that correspond to the curvature of the spine; the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacrum, and coccyx. The vertebrae of the sacrum and coccyx are fused, but those of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar regions are separated by intervertebral discs.

Vertebrae are given an alphanumeric descriptor, with the initial letter derived from the region they are located in followed by a digit; the digit increases moving down the region. For example, the most superior cervical vertebra is termed C1 and the most inferior C7, which is then followed by the T1 vertebrae of the thoracic region.

Viewed laterally the vertebral column presents several curves that correspond to the different regions of the column. These are called the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and pelvic regions.

  • The cervical curve covers the region between vertebrae C1 and T2, it is the least marked of all the spinal curves.
  • The thoracic curve covers the region between vertebrae T2 and T12.
  • The lumbar curve covers the region between vertebrae T12 and L5 and is more marked in the females than in males due to differences in pelvic structure.
  • The sacral curve begins at the sacrovertebral articulation, and ends at the point of the coccyx.

The thoracic and sacral curves are termed primary curves because they alone are present during fetal life. The cervical and lumbar curves are secondary curves that are developed after birth; the former when the child is able to maintain an upright posture, the latter when the child begins to walk.

Parts of a Vertebra

A vertebra consists of two parts: an anterior segment, or the vertebral body; and a posterior part, or the vertebral (neural) arch.

Learning Objectives

Identify the parts of a vertebra

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The vertebral processes can give the structure rigidity, help it articulate with ribs, or serve as muscle attachment points.
  • When the vertebrae are articulated with each other, their bodies form a strong pillar for the support of the head and trunk, and the vertebral foramina constitute a canal for the protection of the spinal cord.
  • Two transverse processes and one spinous process are posterior to the vertebral body.
  • Two superior and two inferior articular processes articulate with the adjoining vertebrae. They allow for a small degree of movement in the spine, but greatly strengthen it.In between every pair of vertebrae are two apertures, the intervertebral foramina, one on either side, for the transmission of the spinal nerves and vessels.

Key Terms

  • process: An outgrowth of tissue or cell.
  • vertebral arch: The posterior part of a vertebra through which the spinal cord passes.

When articulated together the vertebrae form a strong yet flexible structure that encloses the vertebral foramen, or opening, where the spinal cord sits. It also provides a base for numerous muscle attachments and articulations with other bones.

The strength and flexibility of this structure is generated by the structure of the individual vertebrae. Comprised of bone and cartilage, the configuration of a vertebra varies based on its location within the body, although there are common features associated with those of the upper region.

A typical vertebra of the upper region of the spine consists of two regions:

  1. The anterior vertebral body which is the point of articulation between the vertebrae.
  2. The posterior vertebral or neural arch that encloses the spinal cord.

Located between each pair of vertebrae are two laterally located openings:

  1. The intervertebral foramina that facilitate access to the spinal cord for nerves and vessels.
  2. The intervertebral discs that act as ligaments between the vertebral bodies.

The vertebral arch is formed from two, short, thick processes called pediments that extend posteriorly from the lateral sides of the vertebral body, before joining together at the midline with the laminae.

This is an oblique view of cervical vertebrae. It shows the vertebral body and identifies its individual vertebra, from top to bottom: spinal cord, spinal nerve, nucleus pulpous, disc annulus, superior articular process, spinous process, posterior tubercle of transverse process, foramen trasnversium, and the anterior tubercle of transerve process.

Oblique view of cervical vertebra: The parts of a human vertebra.

Vertebral Processes

There are seven processes that project from a typical vertebra.

Four articular processes originate from the joint between the pedicles and laminae, two point superiorly and two point inferiorly.  They interact with the zyhapophysis, a socket for the articular processes, of the adjacent vertebrae to make the spine more stable and to facilitate a small degree of articulation.

A single spinous process projects backwards and downwards from the center of the vertebral arch and it serves as a major attachment point for muscles and ligaments of the back.

The two transverse processes project laterally from the join between the pedicle and lamina and also serve as an attachment point for muscles and ligaments of the back. The transverse processes articulate with the ribs in conjunction with the vertebral body.

Regional Vertebral Characteristics

The vertebrae of the spinal column are divided into five regions: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, and coccyx.

Learning Objectives

Identify the different types of vertebrae

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The upper three regions of the vertebral column are articulating vertebrae grouped under the names cervical, thoracic and lumbar, according to the regions they occupy.
  • Vertebrae are given an alphanumeric descriptor, with the initial letter derived from the region they are located in followed by a digit that increases moving down the region. For example, the most superior cervical vertebrae is termed C1 and the most inferior C7, which is then followed by the T1 vertebrae of the thoracic region.
  • The two lower most regions of vertebrae are the sacrum and the coccyx.

The vertebrae comprising the spinal column can be divided into five regions, based on the five varying curvatures of the spine. The upper three regions of the spinal column are termed the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar; they contain individually jointed vertebrae. The two lower regions—the sacrum and coccyx, or tailbone—are formed from fused vertebrae.

Upper Vertebrae

Vertebrae are given an alphanumeric descriptor, with the initial letter derived from the region they are located in followed by a digit that increases moving down the region. For example, the most superior cervical vertebrae is termed C1 and the most inferior C7, which is then followed by the T1 vertebrae of the thoracic region.

The cervical region of the spine is the most superior and contains seven small vertebrae. The main function of the cervical region is to facilitate attachment of the skull to the spine, protect the spinal cord over the exposed neck and shoulder region, and support the body.

This is a drawing of a lateral view of a typical cervical vertebra. It calls out these features of the vertebral body: the superior articular surface, the articular pillar, spinous process, posterior tubercle of transverse process, sulcus for nerve, and the anterior tubercle of transverse process.

Cervical vertebra, lateral view: The lateral view of a typical cervical vertebra.

The twelve thoracic vertebrae are located inferiorly to the cervical region. They are larger than the cervical vertebrae and increase in size moving inferiorly to the lumbar region.

This is a black and white drawing that calls out these features of a typical thoracic vertebra: the costal fovea, pedicle or root of the vertebral arch, lamina, and superior articular process.

Thoracic vertebra: Image of a typical thoracic vertebra.

The five lumbar vertebrae are the largest vertebral bones and increase in size when moving inferiorly. The lumbar vertebrae play a key role in supporting the body and facilitating locomotion.

This is a drawing showing a cross section of a typical lumbar vertebra.

Lumbar vertebra: Image of typical lumbar vertebra.

Lower Vertebrae

During childhood the five vertebrae of the sacral region are distinct. In adulthood the five bones fuse to form the sacrum, although it is still often divided into regions termed S1–S5 based on the formation of the original individual bones. The sacrum functions to support the body and protect organs of the pelvis and lower back.

The final region of the spine is the coccyx, or tailbone. As with the sacrum, the coccyx is formed from several vertebrae that have fused together.

As it’s alternative name suggests, the coccyx forms the basis of a tail that has been lost in humans, although it is incorrect to think of it as a vestigial structure since is a key attachment point for many muscles and ligaments and plays a key role in supporting the body while sitting.

This is a drawing of a coccyx, shown from beneath the sacrum so its tail-like form is displayed.

Coccyx: Lateral view of coccyx shown beneath the sacrum.