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In human anatomy, the cervical region is the upper part of the spine that begins directly below the skull and ends at the top of the thoracic spine. Seven vertebrae and the discs that separate them make up this region, and are collectively named for the Latin word cervix, or neck. These vertebrae, designated C1 through C7, are shaped like a backward C, forming a lordotic curve. The lumbar section of the spine forms a similar curve, while the thoracic and the sacral regions of the spine form kyphotic curves. It is this configuration of opposing curves that helps distribute the mechanical stress that continually bombards the spine.
The region as a whole can sometimes be thought of as the neck and upper torso, at least insofar as the spinal column is concerned. As such, it’s made up of several crucial components: ligaments, muscles, and joints, for instance. The nervous system plays an important role, too. Not only do all of the muscles and joints have nerve endings, the spinal column is a passageway and protective sheath for many of the body’s biggest nerves, and serves as something of a hub for the peripheral nervous system.
The vertebrae of the cervical region differ from those in the rest of the spine in that each has openings to transport blood to the brain, too. Importantly, the first two vertebrae are shaped differently from the other vertebrae. The very first, or C1, vertebra supports the weight of the head, and allows for flexion and extension. This first vertebra is sometimes also called the atlas vertebra, named for the Titan of Greek mythology who held up the heavens from his perch in the Atlas Mountains.
Located directly under the atlas vertebra is the axis vertebra, sometimes also known as C2. A piece of the axis, called the odontoid, extends up into the atlas, allowing the atlas to pivot around it. This configuration is what allows the head to turn from side to side. Whereas the vertebrae in the thoracic and lumbar regions of the spine are separated by intervertebral discs — spongy pads that allow for movement and serve as shock absorbers — these two vertebrae are connected by ligaments that allow for rotation.
Almost half of the adult population exhibits changes in the cervical region by age 50, usually attributable to deterioration and pressure over time. Wear manifests itself most commonly as collapsed or herniated discs, also called ruptured or slipped discs. These generally lead to pain and stiffness that is most often found in the lower back, but can be located in the cervical region as well. Pain is often worst in the morning or when suddenly standing and engaging the spine, but with time it often becomes more or less constant.
Arthritis, injury, or trauma can be a cause of these symptoms, and osteoporosis, which is a weakening and decalcifying of the bones, often also leads to complications in the cervical spine. Even simple neck pain can also be a harbinger of serious spinal degeneration, misalignment, an infection, however. A physician typically should be consulted whenever there is sustained discomfort in the upper back or other areas of the spine in order to diagnose serious problems and begin treatment or therapy regimens as soon as possible.
In the arena of women’s health, the term “cervical area” might also be used to describe the cervix itself, a part of the reproductive system that serves as the birth canal. This usage is uncommon and nuanced; most of the time, medical professionals simply refer to the cervix by name. The similarity in terminology relates back to word origins, with the female cervix resembling a neck connecting the outer vagina with the uterus and inner reproductive tract.