Published on 17/03/2015 by admin

Filed under Basic Science

Last modified 17/03/2015

Print this page

rate 1 star rate 2 star rate 3 star rate 4 star rate 5 star
Your rating: none, Average: 4.5 (2 votes)

This article have been viewed 13219 times


Conceptual overview

General description

The back consists of the posterior aspect of the body and provides the musculoskeletal axis of support for the trunk. Bony elements consist mainly of the vertebrae, although proximal elements of the ribs, superior aspects of the pelvic bones, and posterior basal regions of the skull contribute to the back’s skeletal framework (Fig. 2.1).

Associated muscles interconnect the vertebrae and ribs with each other and with the pelvis and skull. The back contains the spinal cord and proximal parts of the spinal nerves, which send and receive information to and from most of the body.



The skeletal and muscular elements of the back support the body’s weight, transmit forces through the pelvis to the lower limbs, carry and position the head, and brace and help maneuver the upper limbs. The vertebral column is positioned posteriorly in the body at the midline. When viewed laterally, it has a number of curvatures (Fig. 2.2):

As stresses on the back increase from the cervical to lumbar regions, lower back problems are common.


Muscles of the back consist of extrinsic and intrinsic groups:

Although the amount of movement between any two vertebrae is limited, the effects between vertebrae are additive along the length of the vertebral column. Also, freedom of movement and extension are limited in the thoracic region relative to the lumbar part of the vertebral column. Muscles in more anterior regions flex the vertebral column.

In the cervical region, the first two vertebrae and associated muscles are specifically modified to support and position the head. The head flexes and extends, in the nodding motion, on vertebra CI, and rotation of the head occurs as vertebra CI moves on vertebra CII (Fig. 2.3).

Protection of the nervous system

The vertebral column and associated soft tissues of the back contain the spinal cord and proximal parts of the spinal nerves (Fig. 2.4). The more distal parts of the spinal nerves pass into all other regions of the body, including certain regions of the head.

Component parts


The major bones of the back are the 33 vertebrae (Fig. 2.5). The number and specific characteristics of the vertebrae vary depending on the body region with which they are associated. There are seven cervical, twelve thoracic, five lumbar, five sacral, and three to four coccygeal vertebrae. The sacral vertebrae fuse into a single bony element, the sacrum. The coccygeal vertebrae are rudimentary in structure, vary in number from three to four, and often fuse into a single coccyx.

Typical vertebra

A typical vertebra consists of a vertebral body and a vertebral arch (Fig. 2.6).

The vertebral body is anterior and is the major weightbearing component of the bone. It increases in size from vertebra CII to vertebra LV. Fibrocartilaginous intervertebral discs separate the vertebral bodies of adjacent vertebrae.

The vertebral arch is firmly anchored to the posterior surface of the vertebral body by two pedicles, which form the lateral pillars of the vertebral arch. The roof of the vertebral arch is formed by right and left laminae, which fuse at the midline.

The vertebral arches of the vertebrae are aligned to form the lateral and posterior walls of the vertebral canal, which extends from the first cervical vertebra (CI) to the last sacral vertebra (vertebra SV). This bony canal contains the spinal cord and its protective membranes, together with blood vessels, connective tissue, fat, and proximal parts of spinal nerves.

The vertebral arch of a typical vertebra has a number of characteristic projections, which serve as:

A spinous process projects posteriorly and generally inferiorly from the roof of the vertebral arch.

On each side of the vertebral arch, a transverse process extends laterally from the region where a lamina meets a pedicle. From the same region, a superior articular process and an inferior articular process articulate with similar processes on adjacent vertebrae.

Each vertebra also contains rib elements. In the thorax, these costal elements are large and form ribs, which articulate with the vertebral bodies and transverse processes. In all other regions, these rib elements are small and are incorporated into the transverse processes. Occasionally, they develop into ribs in regions other than the thorax, usually in the lower cervical and upper lumbar regions.

Vertebral canal

The spinal cord lies within a bony canal formed by adjacent vertebrae and soft tissue elements (the vertebral canal) (Fig. 2.8):

Within the vertebral canal, the spinal cord is surrounded by a series of three connective tissue membranes (the meninges):

In the vertebral canal, the dura mater is separated from surrounding bone by an extradural (epidural) space containing loose connective tissue, fat, and a venous plexus.

Spinal nerves

The 31 pairs of spinal nerves are segmental in distribution and emerge from the vertebral canal between the pedicles of adjacent vertebrae. There are eight pairs of cervical nerves (C1 to C8), twelve thoracic (T1 to T12), five lumbar (L1 to L5), five sacral (S1 to S5), and one coccygeal (Co). Each nerve is attached to the spinal cord by a posterior root and an anterior root (Fig. 2.9).

After exiting the vertebral canal, each spinal nerve branches into:

The anterior rami form the major somatic plexuses (cervical, brachial, lumbar, and sacral) of the body. Major visceral components of the PNS (sympathetic trunk and prevertebral plexus) of the body are also associated mainly with the anterior rami of spinal nerves.

Relationship to other regions


Cervical regions of the back constitute the skeletal and much of the muscular framework of the neck, which in turn supports and moves the head (Fig. 2.10).

The brain and cranial meninges are continuous with the spinal cord meninges at the foramen magnum of the skull. The paired vertebral arteries ascend, one on each side, through foramina in the transverse processes of cervical vertebrae and pass through the foramen magnum to participate, with the internal carotid arteries, in supplying blood to the brain.

Thorax, abdomen, and pelvis

The different regions of the vertebral column contribute to the skeletal framework of the thorax, abdomen, and pelvis (Fig. 2.10). In addition to providing support for each of these parts of the body, the vertebrae provide attachments for muscles and fascia, and articulation sites for other bones. The anterior rami of spinal nerves associated with the thorax, abdomen, and pelvis pass into these parts of the body from the back.

Key features

Long vertebral column and short spinal cord

During development, the vertebral column grows much faster than the spinal cord. As a result, the spinal cord does not extend the entire length of the vertebral canal (Fig. 2.11).

In the adult, the spinal cord typically ends between vertebrae LI and LII, although it can end as high as vertebra TXII and as low as the disc between vertebrae LII and LIII.

Spinal nerves originate from the spinal cord at increasingly oblique angles from vertebrae CI to Co, and the nerve roots pass in the vertebral canal for increasingly longer distances. Their spinal cord level of origin therefore becomes increasingly dissociated from their vertebral column level of exit. This is particularly evident for lumbar and sacral spinal nerves.

Intervertebral foramina and spinal nerves

Each spinal nerve exits the vertebral canal laterally through an intervertebral foramen (Fig. 2.12). The foramen is formed between adjacent vertebral arches and is closely related to intervertebral joints:

Any pathology that occludes or reduces the size of an intervertebral foramen, such as bone loss, herniation of the intervertebral disc, or dislocation of the zygapophysial joint (the joint between the articular processes), can affect the function of the associated spinal nerve.

Regional anatomy

Skeletal framework

Skeletal components of the back consist mainly of the vertebrae and associated intervertebral discs. The skull, scapulae, pelvic bones, and ribs also contribute to the bony framework of the back and provide sites for muscle attachment.


There are approximately 33 vertebrae, which are subdivided into five groups based on morphology and location (Fig. 2.14):

image The seven cervical vertebrae between the thorax and skull are characterized mainly by their small size and the presence of a foramen in each transverse process (Figs. 2.14 and 2.15).

image The 12 thoracic vertebrae are characterized by their articulated ribs (Figs. 2.14 and 2.16); although all vertebrae have rib elements, these elements are small and are incorporated into the transverse processes in regions other than the thorax; but in the thorax, the ribs are separate bones and articulate via synovial joints with the vertebral bodies and transverse processes of the associated vertebrae.

image Inferior to the thoracic vertebrae are five lumbar vertebrae, which form the skeletal support for the posterior abdominal wall and are characterized by their large size (Figs. 2.14 and 2.17).

image Next are five sacral vertebrae fused into one single bone called the sacrum, which articulates on each side with a pelvic bone and is a component of the pelvic wall.

image Inferior to the sacrum is a variable number, usually four, of coccygeal vertebrae, which fuse into a single small triangular bone called the coccyx.

In the embryo, the vertebrae are formed intersegmentally from cells called sclerotomes, which originate from adjacent somites (Fig. 2.18). Each vertebra is derived from the cranial parts of the two somites below, one on each side, and the caudal parts of the two somites above. The spinal nerves develop segmentally and pass between the forming vertebrae.

Typical vertebra

A typical vertebra consists of a vertebral body and a posterior vertebral arch (Fig. 2.19). Extending from the vertebral arch are a number of processes for muscle attachment and articulation with adjacent bone.

The vertebral body is the weight-bearing part of the vertebra and is linked to adjacent vertebral bodies by intervertebral discs and ligaments. The size of vertebral bodies increases inferiorly as the amount of weight supported increases.

The vertebral arch forms the lateral and posterior parts of the vertebral foramen.

The vertebral foramina of all the vertebrae together form the vertebral canal, which contains and protects the spinal cord. Superiorly, the vertebral canal is continuous, through the foramen magnum of the skull, with the cranial cavity of the head.

The vertebral arch of each vertebra consists of pedicles and laminae (Fig. 2.19):

A spinous process projects posteriorly and inferiorly from the junction of the two laminae and is a site for muscle and ligament attachment.

A transverse process extends posterolaterally from the junction of the pedicle and lamina on each side and is a site for articulation with ribs in the thoracic region.

Also projecting from the region where the pedicles join the laminae are superior and inferior articular processes (Fig. 2.19), which articulate with the inferior and superior articular processes, respectively, of adjacent vertebrae.

Between the vertebral body and the origin of the articular processes, each pedicle is notched on its superior and inferior surfaces. These superior and inferior vertebral notches participate in forming intervertebral foramina.

Cervical vertebrae

The seven cervical vertebrae are characterized by their small size and by the presence of a foramen in each transverse process. A typical cervical vertebra has the following features (Fig. 2.20A):

The first and second cervical vertebrae—the atlas and axis—are specialized to accommodate movement of the head.

Atlas and axis

Vertebra CI (the atlas) articulates with the head (Fig. 2.21). Its major distinguishing feature is that it lacks a vertebral body (Fig. 2.20B). In fact, the vertebral body of CI fuses onto the body of CII during development to become the dens of CII. As a result, there is no intervertebral disc between CI and CII. When viewed from above, the atlas is ring shaped and composed of two lateral masses interconnected by an anterior arch and a posterior arch.

Each lateral mass articulates above with an occipital condyle of the skull and below with the superior articular process of vertebra CII (the axis). The superior articular surfaces are bean shaped and concave, whereas the inferior articular surfaces are almost circular and flat.

The atlanto-occipital joint allows the head to nod up and down on the vertebral column.

The posterior surface of the anterior arch has an articular facet for the dens, which projects superiorly from the vertebral body of the axis. The dens is held in position by a strong transverse ligament of atlas posterior to it and spanning the distance between the oval attachment facets on the medial surfaces of the lateral masses of the atlas.

The dens acts as a pivot that allows the atlas and attached head to rotate on the axis, side to side.

The transverse processes of the atlas are large and protrude further laterally than those of the other cervical vertebrae and act as levers for muscle action, particularly for muscles that move the head at the atlanto-axial joints.

The axis is characterized by the large tooth-like dens, which extends superiorly from the vertebral body (Figs. 2.20B and 2.21). The anterior surface of the dens has an oval facet for articulation with the anterior arch of the atlas.

The two superolateral surfaces of the dens possess circular impressions that serve as attachment sites for strong alar ligaments, one on each side, which connect the dens to the medial surfaces of the occipital condyles. These alar ligaments check excessive rotation of the head and atlas relative to the axis.

Lumbar vertebrae

The five lumbar vertebrae are distinguished from vertebrae in other regions by their large size (Fig. 2.20D). Also, they lack facets for articulation with ribs. The transverse processes are generally thin and long, with the exception of those on vertebra LV, which are massive and somewhat cone shaped for the attachment of iliolumbar ligaments to connect the transverse processes to the pelvic bones.

The vertebral body of a typical lumbar vertebra is cylindrical and the vertebral foramen is triangular in shape and larger than in the thoracic vertebrae.


The sacrum is a single bone that represents the five fused sacral vertebrae (Fig. 2.20E). It is triangular in shape with the apex pointed inferiorly, and is curved so that it has a concave anterior surface and a correspondingly convex posterior surface. It articulates above with vertebra LV and below with the coccyx. It has two large L-shaped facets, one on each lateral surface, for articulation with the pelvic bones.

The posterior surface of the sacrum has four pairs of posterior sacral foramina, and the anterior surface has four pairs of anterior sacral foramina for the passage of the posterior and anterior rami, respectively, of S1 to S4 spinal nerves.

The posterior wall of the vertebral canal may be incomplete near the inferior end of the sacrum.


The coccyx is a small triangular bone that articulates with the inferior end of the sacrum and represents three to four fused coccygeal vertebrae (Fig. 2.20F). It is characterized by its small size and by the absence of vertebral arches and therefore a vertebral canal.

Intervertebral foramina

Intervertebral foramina are formed on each side between adjacent parts of vertebrae and associated intervertebral discs (Fig. 2.22). The foramina allow structures, such as spinal nerves and blood vessels, to pass in and out of the vertebral canal.

An intervertebral foramen is formed by the inferior vertebral notch on the pedicle of the vertebra above and the superior vertebral notch on the pedicle of the vertebra below. The foramen is bordered:

Each intervertebral foramen is a confined space surrounded by bone and ligament, and by joints. Pathology in any of these structures, and in the surrounding muscles, can affect structures within the foramen.

Posterior spaces between vertebral arches

In most regions of the vertebral column, the laminae and spinous processes of adjacent vertebrae overlap to form a reasonably complete bony dorsal wall for the vertebral canal. However, in the lumbar region, large gaps exist between the posterior components of adjacent vertebral arches (Fig. 2.23). These gaps between adjacent laminae and spinous processes become increasingly wide from vertebra LI to vertebra LV. The spaces can be widened further by flexion of the vertebral column. These gaps allow relatively easy access to the vertebral canal for clinical procedures.