Anatomy of Spinal Fractures

Written by Jason M. Highsmith, MD

For spinal fractures, the most important part of the spinal anatomy for you to understand is the vertebrae. These are the bones that make up your spinal column. Spinal fractures can also affect the other parts of the spine—the nerves, spinal cord, ligaments, etc.—and this article will discuss those later.

The image below shows the different regions of the spinal column. After reading about how the vertebrae stack up, you'll learn about the different parts of the vertebrae.

 

 

In between your vertebrae, you have intervertebral discs. These discs function like cushions, absorbing shock from your movements. The discs are what allow your spine to move in multiple directions. They are made up of two parts: the center of the disc is called the nucleus pulposus, and the outer part is the annulus fibrosus. It helps to think of the disc as a jelly donut: the nucleus is composed of a gel-like substance, and surrounding it is the tougher annulus that holds in the "jelly."

The intervertebral discs and the vertebrae create the spinal canal, which protects the spinal cord and spinal nerves. You can see the spinal cord running down the center of the vertebrae in the above image, and you can see the nerves exiting the spinal canal and going to various parts of the body, where they help you feel and move.

The spinal cord tapers as it travels down the spinal canal, and it ends between the first and second lumbar vertebrae. Below that point, there's a cord-like extension and various nerves travelling to the legs.

Because the spinal cord and spinal nerves are so close to the vertebrae, if you have a spinal fracture, it is possible to damage the spinal cord or nerves. If you have a fracture below the L1-L2 (first and second vertebrae in the lumbar spine), you won't have a spinal cord injury, but it's still possible to injure the nerves.

Your back also has muscles, ligaments, tendons, and blood vessels. Muscles are strands of tissues that power your movement. Ligaments are the strong, flexible bands of fibrous tissue that link the discs and bones together, and tendons connect muscles to bones. Blood vessels provide nourishment. These parts all work together to help you move.

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