A Guide to Spinal Anatomy and What Can Go Wrong

Last updated: 05-25-2020

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A Guide to Spinal Anatomy and What Can Go Wrong

Understanding the anatomy and inner workings of your spine will help you stay mindful of how to best protect your spine as you go through your day. This top-to-bottom guide to the spinal anatomy can help you understand the potential problems.

The spine begins at the base of the skull in a section called the cervical spine. This consists of 7 vertebrae and extends through your neck to your upper back.

Acute neck pain is most often caused by a muscle, ligament or tendon strain (such as from a sudden force or straining the neck). These injuries will usually heal with time and nonsurgical treatments to alleviate the pain (such as ice/heat, medications, chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, etc).

If your neck pain lasts longer than two weeks to three months—or if you experience mainly radiating symptoms like arm pain, numbness or tingling—there is often a spinal problem. The most common examples are:

The 12 vertebral bodies in your upper and middle back make up the thoracic spine. The firm attachment of the rib cage at each level of the thoracic spine provides stability and structural support and allows very little motion, which means that thoracic spine injuries are rare.

See All About the C7-T1 Spinal Segment (Cervicothoracic Junction)

However, irritation of the large back and shoulder muscles or joint dysfunction in this area can be very painful.

See All About Upper Back Pain

Your lower back (lumbar spine) has the least structural support and endures the most strain, making it the most frequently injured area of the spine.

The motion in the lower spine is divided between five motion segments, although a disproportionate amount of the motion is in the lower segments (L4-L5 and L5-S1). Consequently, these two segments are the most likely to be injured. For example, a herniated disc in this area can cause pain and possibly numbness that radiates through the leg and down to the foot (sciatica).

Most short episodes of lower back pain are caused by muscle strain. Even though this doesn't sound like a serious injury, pain in the low back can be severe.

But, as with the cervical spine, if pain lasts a few months or is accompanied by radiating pain or tingling in the legs and feet, a structural problem with the vertebrae or discs is the likely culprit.

Below the lumbar spine is a bone called the sacrum, which makes up the back part of the pelvis. This bone is shaped like a triangle that fits between the two halves of the pelvis, connecting the spine to the lower half of the body.

The sacrum is connected to part of the pelvis (the iliac bones) by the sacroiliac (SI) joints. Pain here is often called sacroiliac joint dysfunction, and is more common in women than men.

The coccyx, or the tailbone, is at the very bottom of the spine. Pain here is called coccydynia and is more common in women than men.

Take advantage of the many educational videos and articles we have provided on our site to become an expert on your spinal anatomy. Understanding how your spine works, and how things can go wrong, can help you take steps to protect and strengthen it.

Causes of Pain in the Lumbar Spine


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