Our spine has many functions. It supports our body weight, helps us remain upright and complete movement. Most importantly, it protects our spinal cord and nerves as they move out to our body’s extremities.

The spine can be separated into three segments – the cervical spine (neck), thoracic spine (mid back) and the lumbar spine (lower back).; Overall there are 24 bones of the spine. These bones are often referred to by health professionals as vertebrae. Between the vertebrae lay the intervetreval discs (discs) which allow movement through the spine. Without the discs, the spine would be one long bone – meaning we wouldnt be able to bend forward or back, look over shoulders or twist through the spine. These discs are flexible and also act as shock absorbers, taking much of impact when we walk or run.

The role of the vertebrae is to house and protect the spinal cord. As well as the spinal cord, many nerves also run through the vertebrae. Both the spinal cord and the nerves, can be thought as electrical cables, travelling through the spinal can send messages between the brain and the body including our muscles and internal organs.

When people talk about the back, or spine it’s common for most of the focus to be on the lower back. But the cervical spine – or the neck – is also an important part of the spine.

The neck starts at the base of the skull and is made of 7 vertebrae (c1– c1 stands for cervical vertebrae one – to c7). The neck is the most flexible part of the spine allowing for movement in all directions including rotation (moving the head side to side), flexion (chin to chest), extension (looking toward the ceiling) and lateral flexion (bringing the ear toward the shoulder). The first two vertebrae, have specific names - the atlas and axis. These two vertebrae have a unique design which allows the majority of rotation (looking over the shoulder) to occur.

For the most part the cervical spine is durable and resistant to injury. With the exception of trauma, the majority of neck pain is a result of wear and tear, and not acute injury.

One common wear and tear condition is cervical spondolysis. Occurrence is most frequent in those of middle age and older. Other than age, there are factors which can increase your risk of developing spondolysis:

  • Lack of exercise
  • Obesity
  • Genetics — a family history of neck pain and spondylosis
  • Smoking — clearly linked to increased neck pain
  • Occupation — jobs with lots of repetitive neck motion and overhead work
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Previous injury or trauma to the neck

Our next article will look at posture of the spine, which can influence the rate of wear and tear on the body.

Dr Ramsey Jabbour

Ramsey graduated in 2001 from University College London, in the United Kingdom. He subsequently worked as a junior doctor in various hospitals in the South East of England. He then trained as a General Practitioner gaining a distinction in his GP UK membership exams.

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