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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 constitute the cervical region, and are 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.
Generally, the cervical region includes bones, ligaments, muscles, and joints — all of which have nerve endings. 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. Additionally, the first two vertebrae of the cervical region are shaped differently from the other vertebrae. The C1 vertebra supports the weight of the head, and allows for flexion and extension. This first vertebra is 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. 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. Wear manifests itself 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. Arthritis, injury, or trauma can be a cause of these symptoms, but neck pain can also be a harbinger of serious spinal degeneration, misalignment, an infection, or a tumor. A physician typically should be consulted whenever there is sustained discomfort in the cervical region or other areas of the spine.