Cervical Spine Anatomy (Neck)

Vertebrae and Cervical Spinal Nerves

The cervical spine (sometimes abbreviated as c-spine in the medical world) begins at the base of the skull. Seven vertebrae make up the cervical spine with eight pairs of cervical nerves. The individual cervical vertebrae are abbreviated C1, C2, C3, C4, C5, C6, and C7. The cervical nerves are also abbreviated; they are C1 through C8.
C4 Vertebra viewed from above.The purpose of the cervical spine is to contain and protect the spinal cord, support the skull, and enable diverse head movement. Photo Courtesy of: SpineUniverse.com.

Cervical Vertebrae and Supporting Spinal Structures

The cervical bones (the vertebrae) are smaller in size when compared to other spinal vertebrae (in your thoracic or lumbar spines). The purpose of the cervical spine is to contain and protect the spinal cord, support the skull, and enable diverse head movement (eg, rotate side to side, bend forward and backward).

A complex system of ligaments, tendons, and muscles help to support and stabilize the cervical spine. Ligaments work to prevent excessive movement that could result in serious injury.

Muscles also help to provide spinal balance and stability, and enable movement. Muscles contract and relax in response to nerve impulses originating in the brain. Some muscles work in pairs or as antagonists. This means when a muscle contracts, the opposing muscle relaxes. There are different types of muscle: forward flexors, lateral flexors, rotators, and extensors.

Spinal Cord and Cervical Nerve Roots

Nerve impulses travel to and from the brain through the spinal cord to a specific location by way of the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The PNS is the complex system of nerves that branch off from the spinal nerve roots. These nerves travel outside of the spinal canal or spinal cord into the organs, arms, legs, fingers—throughout the entire body.

Injury or mild trauma to the cervical spine can cause a serious or life-threatening medical emergency (eg, spinal cord injury or a spinal fracture). Pain, numbness, weakness, and tingling are symptoms that may develop when one or more cervical spinal nerves are injured, irritated, or stretched.

Because the cervical nerves control many bodily functions and sensory activities, specific symptoms from a cervical spine injury vary depending on which nerves are affected. Below, the parts of the body controlled by cervical nerves are summarized.

  • C1: Head and neck
  • C2: Head and neck
  • C3: Diaphragm
  • C4: Upper body muscles (eg, deltoids, biceps)
  • C5: Wrist extensors
  • C6: Wrist extensors
  • C7: Triceps
  • C8: Hands
Updated on: 12/20/19
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