The neck consists of the cervical vertebra, the intervertebral discs, facet joints, and a myriad of muscles and ligaments that move, support and stabilise the head and neck. The cervical vertebrae consist of seven bony rings that are stacked along the length of the neck to form a continuous column between the skull and the chest. Among the vertebrae of the spinal column, the cervical vertebrae are the smallest and lightest bones. Yet, in spite of their size, the cervical vertebrae have the huge jobs of supporting the head, protecting the spinal cord, and providing mobility to the head and neck.
Each cervical vertebra is named by its position in order from the top, C1, to the bottom C7. The C1 vertebra, which holds up the skull, is named the atlas after the mythological titan Atlas who similarly held the Earth on his shoulders. Similar to the C1 vertebra, the C2 vertebra is named the axis as it provides the axis upon which the skull and atlas rotate when the head is moved side to side.
The individual vertebra contain a body which is a thickened region of bone that forms the main bone mass. The body strengthens the vertebra and supports the majority of the weight of the head and neck. The intervertebral discs lie between the vertebral bodies providing protection and shock absorption and allowing for increased flexibility at the neck. Either side of bodies are flattened facets that form joints with the neighbouring vertebrae and skull, allowing for movement.
The cervical vertebrae perform many important functions that are critical to the survival of the body. Vital nerves that pass through the neck are protected from mechanical damage by the bony arches of the cervical vertebrae. This allows the messages from the brain to reach the rest of the body. Furthermore, important blood vessels that travel through passageways in the neck facilitate the flow of blood to the brain.
The cervical vertebrae also provide support to the head and neck, including supporting the muscles that move this region of the body. The muscles that attach to the individual vertebra provide posture to the head and neck throughout the day and have some of the greatest endurance of all of the body’s muscles. Finally, the many joints formed between the skull and cervical vertebrae provide incredible flexibility that allows the head and neck to rotate, flex, and extend