Learning about Normal Spine Anatomy

The spinal column is one of the most important parts of your body. The spine is made up of many bones, called vertebrae, which act to support the body, protect the spinal cord, and help provide mobility and flexibility.

The spine is considered to be made up of three main sections: the cervical spine (the neck), the thoracic spine (mid and upper back), and the lumbar spine (the low back).

There are a total of 33 vertebrae in the spine. The 24 vertebrae of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine are mobile. At the bottom of the spine is a structure called the sacrum made up of 5 fused vertebrae, to which your hip bones attach, and lastly, you have your tail bone, called the coccyx, which is attached to the lowest part of the scrum, and is made up of 4 fused vertebrae.

The cervical spine has 7 vertebrae, the thoracic spine has 12 vertebrae, and the lumbar spine has 5 vertebrae. The individual vertebrae are rather complex in structure.

There is the body of the vertebrae which is responsible for the majority of the weight bearing and support of the spine. The body is also where the discs reside. The spinal discs are the shock absorbers of the spinal column.

Your spinal column is essentially alternating layers of bones and discs. This provides a lot of support, shock absorption, and mobility, allowing movements in all directions. Some areas have more movement than others. Your neck has the most movement and the thoracic spine has the least amount of movement. The low back has a very good range of motion as well. Helping this movement are the joints of the spine called facet joints. These are like the knuckles of the spinal bones.

There is another, less appreciated, function for the spinal column. It offers protection for the spinal cord. The spinal cord is the bundle of nerves that comes down from the brain and connects to the rest of the body. The spinal cord is like the main highway from the brain to the body. At each level of the spinal column, there are branches of nerves, like side roads, that exit off from the main highway and reach out to the different parts of the body, such as to the internal organs, muscles, arms, and legs.

The spinal column acts as a flexible yet strong cage around the spinal cord. Unfortunately, things can sometimes go wrong. Overuse injuries, traumatic injuries, osteoporosis, or poor posture can lead to damage to the structures of the spinal column. Whether it is damage to the vertebral bones, or to the shock absorbing discs, this can lead to pain, discomfort, or even more serious conditions such as pinched or compressed nerves. These types of injuries act as a sort of road block to the flow of traffic through the nerves going to the parts of the body. Some of the symptoms can be local pain in the spine at the area of the injury, or pain in some part of the body away from the injury. This is called radiculopathic pain, or radiculopathy. Radiculopathy can be noticed as pain, weakness or numbness in the arm, hand or fingers in the case of cervical radiculopathy; pain, numbness, tingling in the ribs, side, or abdomen in the case of thoracic radiculopathy; or pain, numbness, weakness or tingling in the leg, foot or toes in the case of lumbar radiculopathy.