Getting to Know Your Spine

Helping you understand your spine and the diagnosis and treatment options

Your spine is made up of vertebrae, discs, spinal cord and nerves, ligaments and muscles. The vertebrae column is a strong, flexible rod that protects the spinal cord, supports the head and provides an attachment for the ribs.

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  • Vertebrae – The spine is composed of 24 bones called vertebrae, which provide support for the body and they are:
    • Cervical Spine (C1-C7): The upper 7 vertebrae are called your cervical spine.
    • Thoracic Spine (T1-T12): The 12 thoracic vertebrae are located in the mid-back and are connected to your ribs.
    • Lumbar Spine (L1-L5): The 5 lumbar are located on your lower back and are the biggest, thickest and most massive vertebrae. Because they support the weight of the entire spine, many spinal problems occur in the lower back.
    • Sacrum: Under the lumbar vertebrae is the sacrum, a triangular bone that connects to the hips on either side.
    • Coccyx: The coccyx is also called your tailbone and is located on the bottom end of the spinal column. It is a little piece of bone made up of 4 fused vertebrae.
  • Discs – Located in between each vertebrae are discs, which give the spine flexibility and serve as a shock absorber for the body. Discs show the first signs of "wear and tear" associated with the aging process, since they are constantly squeezed and stretched under the forces of the vertebrae. Together, the vertebrae and the discs provide a protective tunnel (called the spinal canal) through which the spinal cord and spinal nerves pass through.
  • Spinal Cord and Nerves – The spinal cord is a network of nerves that goes from the base of your brain down to your lower back. The spinal cord passes through a tubular space and at each disc level, a pair of spinal nerves exits and passes into the arms and legs. The spinal cord and the spinal nerves allow messages, or impulses, to travel to the brain and then to the arms and legs to control sensation and movement.
  • Ligaments & Muscles – The vertebrae are connected and supported by ligaments and the entire spinal column is stabilized by muscles in your back, sides and abdomen. These muscles hold your posture and help you bend, twist and move your back.

Question: What happens to the structure of the spine as people age?

Answer: As people age, the nucleus of the disc begins to "dry up," reducing the effectiveness of the shock-absorbing quality of the discs. As this protection is lost, daily activities can wear down the vertebrae, causing the development of jagged edges (called bony spurs) on the vertebrae. Bone spurs can cause the center canal that encases the spine and the side canals, which protect the nerves to become narrowed.