In tetrapods, cervical vertebrae (singular: vertebra) are the vertebrae of the neck, immediately below the skull. Truncal vertebrae (divided into thoracic and lumbar vertebrae in mammals) lie caudal (toward the tail) of cervical vertebrae. In sauropsid species, the cervical vertebrae bear cervical ribs. In lizards and saurischian dinosaurs, the cervical ribs are large; in birds, they are small and completely fused to the vertebrae. The vertebral transverse processes of mammals are homologous to the cervical ribs of other amniotes. Most mammals have seven cervical vertebrae, with the only three known exceptions being the manatee with six, the two-toed sloth with five or six, and the three-toed sloth with nine.
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In humans, cervical vertebrae are the smallest of the true vertebrae and can be readily distinguished from those of the thoracic or lumbar regions by the presence of a foramen (hole) in each transverse process, through which the vertebral artery, vertebral veins, and inferior cervical ganglion pass. The remainder of this article focuses upon human anatomy.
By convention, the cervical vertebrae are numbered, with the first one (C1) closest to the skull and higher numbered vertebrae (C2–C7) proceeding away from the skull and down the spine. The general characteristics of the third through sixth cervical vertebrae are described here. The first, second, and seventh vertebrae are extraordinary, and are detailed later.
The anterior tubercle of the sixth cervical vertebra is known as the carotid tubercle or Chassaignac tubercle (for Édouard Chassaignac). This separates the carotid artery from the vertebral artery and the carotid artery can be massaged against this tubercle to relieve the symptoms of supraventricular tachycardia. The carotid tubercle is also used as a landmark for anaesthesia of the brachial plexus and cervical plexus.
The cervical spinal nerves emerge from above the cervical vertebrae. For example, the cervical spinal nerve 3 (C3) passes above C3.
The atlas (C1) is the topmost vertebra, and along with the axis forms the joint connecting the skull and spine. It lacks a vertebral body, spinous process, and discs either superior or inferior to it. It is ring-like and consists of an anterior arch, posterior arch, and two lateral masses.
The axis (C2) forms the pivot on which the atlas rotates. The most distinctive characteristic of this bone is the strong odontoid process (dens) that rises perpendicularly from the upper surface of the body and articulates with C1. The body is deeper in front than behind, and prolonged downward anteriorly so as to overlap the upper and front part of the third vertebra.
The vertebra prominens, or C7, has a distinctive long and prominent spinous process, which is palpable from the skin surface. Sometimes, the seventh cervical vertebra is associated with an abnormal extra rib, known as a cervical rib, which develops from the anterior root of the transverse process. These ribs are usually small, but may occasionally compress blood vessels (such as the subclavian artery or subclavian vein) or nerves in the brachial plexus, causing pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness in the upper limb, a condition known as thoracic outlet syndrome. Very rarely, this rib occurs in a pair.
The long spinous process of C7 is thick and nearly horizontal in direction. It is not bifurcated, and ends in a tubercle that the ligamentum nuchae attaches to. This process is not always the most prominent of the spinous processes, being found only about 70% of the time, C6 or T1 can sometimes be the most prominent.
The transverse processes are of considerable size; their posterior roots are large and prominent, while the anterior are small and faintly marked. The upper surface of each usually has a shallow sulcus for the eighth spinal nerve, and its extremity seldom presents more than a trace of bifurcation.
The transverse foramen may be as large as that in the other cervical vertebrae, but it is generally smaller on one or both sides; occasionally, it is double, and sometimes it is absent.
On the left side, it occasionally gives passage to the vertebral artery; more frequently, the vertebral vein traverses it on both sides, but the usual arrangement is for both artery and vein to pass in front of the transverse process, not through the foramen.
The movement of nodding the head takes place predominantly through flexion and extension at the atlanto-occipital joint between the atlas and the occipital bone. However, the cervical spine is comparatively mobile, and some component of this movement is due to flexion and extension of the vertebral column itself. This movement between the atlas and occipital bone is often referred to as the "yes joint", owing to its nature of being able to move the head in an up-and-down fashion.
The movement of shaking or rotating the head left and right happens almost entirely at the joint between the atlas and the axis, the atlanto-axial joint. A small amount of rotation of the vertebral column itself contributes to the movement. This movement between the atlas and axis is often referred to as the "no joint", owing to its nature of being able to rotate the head in a side-to-side fashion.
Cervical degenerative changes arise from conditions such as spondylosis, stenosis of intervertebral discs, and the formation of osteophytes. The changes are seen on radiographs, which are used in a grading system from 0–4 ranging from no changes (0) to early with minimal development of osteophytes (1) to mild with definite osteophytes (2) to moderate with additional disc space stenosis or narrowing (3) to the stage of many large osteophytes, severe narrowing of the disc space, and more severe vertebral end plate sclerosis (4).
Injuries to the cervical spine are common at the level of the second cervical vertebrae, but neurological injury is uncommon. C4 and C5 are the areas that see the highest amount of cervical spine trauma.
A common practice is to immobilize a patient's cervical spine to prevent further damage during transport to hospital. This practice has come under review recently as incidence rates of unstable spinal trauma can be as low as 2% in immobilized patients. In clearing the cervical spine, Canadian studies have developed the Canadian C-Spine Rule (CCR) for physicians to decide who should receive radiological imaging.
Scrollable computed tomography images of normal cervical vertebrae
Position of cervical vertebrae (shown in red). Animation.
Illustration of cervical vertebrae
Shape of cervical vertebrae (shown in blue and yellow). Animation.
Cervical vertebrae, lateral view (shown in blue and yellow)
X-ray of cervical vertebrae
X-ray of cervical spine in flexion and extension
First cervical vertebra, or atlas
Second cervical vertebra, or epistropheus, from above
Second cervical vertebra, epistropheus, or axis, from the side
Seventh cervical vertebra
Posterior atlanto-occipital membrane and atlantoaxial ligament
Median sagittal section through the occipital bone and first three cervical vertebrae
Section of the neck at about the level of the sixth cervical vertebra
Anterior view of cervical spine showing the vertebral arteries along with the spinal nerves. See this in 3d here.
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