Cervical and Thoracic Spine

Your neck and midback anatomy

Cervical spineCervical Spine
This is your neck, which contains seven vertebrae(C1–C7). The last, C7 is the bone that generally sticks out the most. You can easily feel it at the base of your neck, especially when you bend your head forward. Go ahead, see if you can find it.

The cervical vertebrae's main job is to support your head. This is no small feat given that the head can weigh as much as 11 pounds! That's why how you hold your head matters so much. For many computer workers, a small but constant forward jut of the head is not uncommon. The result can transmit forces deep into the neck and shoulders. Stress to your neck muscles can lead to joint misalignment, which can pinch nerves. The result? Ouch! A sore neck with pain possibly radiating down into your arms.

Think about how many directions you can move your head. There's up, down, side to side, forward and back, and around. It can tilt like a bobble head. Thank the cervical vertebrae—in particular, the pivoting action of C1—for all those marvelous movements. And that's a good thing most of the time. On the downside, the highly flexible neck makes it especially vulnerable to injury—such as whiplash when your head is thrust forward due to impact from a rear-end auto crash.

Thoracic Spine
This is your rib-cage/midback area and it has 12 vertebrae (T1–T12). Unlike your other vertebrae, these attach to your ribs. The thoracic spine can move forward relatively easily, though it's much more limited bending backward. This part of your back is not typically a huge problem when it comes to back pain(most problems occur in the lower back). The midback can, however, be overly curved in some individuals, a condition called kyphosis. It often results from bad posture—think of slouching teenagers. But it can also be caused by disease. Either way, the excessive curve makes a person appear hunchbacked.

There can be some discomfort with kyphosis caused by disease, but postural kyphosis doesn't generally cause much pain. However, excessively rounding your thoracic spine may also lead to the head being positioned forward, which, as we mentioned earlier, causes problems in your neck. The forward slumping also shortens the muscles in front of your torso and overstretches some back muscles. This can lead to discomfort when you try to sit up straight. The good news is that you can correct this with good posture and proper exercise.

Jason Highsmith, MD is a practicing neurosurgeon in Charleston, NC and the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Back Pain. Click here for more information about the book.

Updated on: 02/09/16
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