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What Is the Cervical Vertebrae?

An X-ray of the neck, including the cervical vertebrae.
Paramedics are trained to brace a patient's neck to prevent further damage to the cervical vertebrae and spinal cord after an injury.
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  • Written By: Vanessa Harvey
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 06 August 2014
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The cervical vertebrae, also called the cervical spine and, more commonly, the neck, is a structure of the skeletal system of the body composed of seven individual, irregularly shaped bones. These somewhat circular bones sit one on top of the other instead of being fused together as one solid structure. This allows for good flexibility so that a person can turn his or her neck to either side without causing any damage to the neck. Each vertebra has a hollow center, somewhat like a doughnut. Being stacked on top of one another, they form a protective cavity, down through which the most important part of the spinal cord extends.

Functions vital to maintain life such as heartbeat and respiration can be suddenly halted and impossible to restore if any damage to the cervical vertebrae penetrates the actual cord running through it. It is for this reason that the cervical vertebrae are the most important of all of the bones of the torso; they also are among those that are most easily damaged. Falls from heights of more than three times a person's height, automobile accidents and neck wounds caused by the bullets of any type of gun are often very serious or even fatal because of the irreversible damage that can be caused to the cervical vertebrae.

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Among the very early interventions that emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics in the United States as well as many other nations do is what is known as holding cervical spine or c-spine for short. It is possible for the cervical vertebrae to be injured without producing significant damage to the actual cord that runs through it. There is, nevertheless, great danger of cord injury with the slightest movement of the victim's neck. This is why a professional medical rescuer will immediately prevent movement of the cervical vertebrae by firmly holding the patient's neck in line with the rest of the backbone as the body is gently moved into the anatomical position.

A device known as a cervical collar is employed by health care providers when there is any suspicion of injury to the cervical vertebrae. These rescuers, however, never cease to manually support and stabilize this vital section of the spine even after the collar has been applied, until the patient is secured to what is known as a back board. Although it might be difficult to palpate the individual bones of the neck, illustrations and photographs of the skeleton plainly reveal them.

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