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Understanding The Spine and Neck

Understanding your spine and neck is important, especially in the event of an injury or from the wear and tear of aging. Your spine and neck are incredibly strong and flexible, playing a critical role in supporting your head, shoulders and upper body; allowing you to stand up straight, bend and twist; and protecting your spinal cord. Your spine and neck are made from an intricate design of bones, nerves, muscles, ligaments and tendons. The spine and neck protect the spinal cord, which sends messages from the brain to the muscles throughout the body.


The spine is made up of 3 segments: the cervical (neck), the thoracic (upper back), and the lumbar (lower back). When you look at the spine from the side view, it makes 3 natural “c” curves. The cervical and the lumbar are referred to as the lordosis. The thoracic is the kyphosis. The curves of the spine are necessary to allow our bodies to stand up straight. If the curve becomes too big or too small, it becomes difficult to stand upright and makes the posture look distorted.

The spine is made up of small bones called vertebrae, which form the natural curve of your back. The bones connect to each other to form a canal that protects the spinal cord. The cervical spine has 7 small vertebrae that begin at the base of the neck and end at the upper chest. The thoracic spine has 12 vertebrae that start at the upper chest and end at the middle chest, connecting to the rib cage. The lumbar spine has 5 large vertebrae, which are responsible for supporting most of the body’s weight.

At each level, the vertebrae work with muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints to provide structure, support and flexibility for the neck and spine.

The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that run from the top of the cervical spine to the first and second vertebrae in the lumbar spine, and continue as nerve roots, called cauda equina. The nerve roots exit through vertebral foramen (openings), some grouping together to form the sciatic nerve.

In between each vertebrae is an intervertebral disc. Each disc is made of a nucleus pulposus, which is the jelly-like center of the disc and gives it flexibility and strength; and the annulus fibrosus, which is the flexible outer ring of the disc. The discs act as shock absorbers for the spine, and allow for movement. As you move, the nucleus pulposus expands, and the annulus fibrosus holds the nucleus in place. This maintains the great strength of the spine.

Facet joints are connected to the back of the vertebrae and allow for movement and rotation of the spine. These facets have cartilage on them similar to a knee or elbow and can develop arthritis over time.

Spinal muscles play a critical role in spinal health, flexibility, and movement. The iliopsoas muscle group attach the lumbar vertebrae, the pelvis and the top of the femur. The paraspinals, including erector spinae and multifidus, which act like “suspenders” for the spine, help control rotation, extension and bending. The quadratus lumborum lies deep in the torso around the kidneys. These muscles help to bend, straighten and rotate the torso from the bent position. The rectus abdominis muscles, which run from the ribs to the pelvis, help to stabilize the torso.

Spinal conditions can develop over time due to injury or the normal wear and tear of aging. Spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis can occur when the vertebrae cracks and when it slips out of place. Degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, and scoliosis are all conditions that can develop over time. Contact your spine surgeon for more information regarding spinal conditions.


The cervical spine, or neck, is responsible for several important functions. It supports and protects the spinal cord, a bundle of nerves that run from the cervical spine down to the lumbar spine, and relays messages from the brain to the rest of the body. Damage to the vertebrae or intervertebral discs may require neck surgery to repair the injury.

The neck supports the head and controls its movements. The neck allows the head to move forward, backward, side to side, giving it great flexibility. The neck muscles, sternocleidomastoid and the trapezius, work together for the movement of the neck and head. Working in pairs on the left and right side together, they control the flexion and extension of the head and neck. Working individually, they rotate the head or flex the neck to the left or right. These muscles work constantly throughout the day to adjust posture, and are some of the strongest muscles in the body.

Vertebral foramen are openings in the vertebrae that allow proper blood flow via vertebral arteries to the brain. These are only present in the cervical spine.

Bone spurs and cervical osteoarthritis are 2 common neck conditions that can develop over time with aging, and may or may not cause pain. If non-surgical treatments fail, neck surgery is an option.

Injuries and normal aging of the spine and neck can cause pain and discomfort. Understanding how your neck and spine work can help in the event that you might become injured or in pain. Dr. Badlani is the top board-certified Houston spine specialist. He specializes in spine conditions, using minimally-invasive techniques whenever possible. If you are experiencing back or neck pain, call our offices for a consultation today!