The spine consists of five sections: cervical vertebrae, thoracic vertebrae, lumbar vertebrae, sacrum and coccyx.
The spine has three normal curves: cervical, thoracic and lumbar. There are seven cervical vertebrae in the neck, 12 thoracic vertebrae in the torso and five lumbar vertebrae in the lower back.

What are the parts of the spine?

The spinal column, or the vertebrae, consists of 24 separate bones along with the fused bones of the sacrum and coccyx. The vertebral column is a strong yet flexible structure that protects the spinal cord, supports the head, provides the ability to negotiate our environment, and that provides an attachment for the ribs. There are 4 major components of the spine: the vertebrae, joints, disks, and nerves.


The separate components of the vertebra link together to form a "tunnel" that protects the nerves and spinal cord. The lumbar vertebrae are exposed to significant pressure from the weight of the upper body. The "wear and tear" of this pressure over a period of time can contribute to the development of low back pain.


Joints, or the spaces between 2 or more bones, are found throughout the body. Joints allow different degrees of movements that change the position of bones, since bones are too rigid to bend without damage. Joints are located between each vertebrae and provide flexibility and stability within the vertebral column.


Disks located in between the vertebrae act as "shock absorbers," preventing the vertebrae from rubbing together. Disks function as the "glue" that holds the vertebrae together and they also provide flexibility within the vertebral column. Disks often show the first signs of "wear and tear" associated with the aging process, since they are constantly "squeezed" and "stretched" under normal and abnormal motion.


At each disk level, a pair of spinal nerves exits and passes into the arms and legs. The spinal cord (which runs through the middle of the vertebrae) and the spinal nerves act as a "telephone" to allow messages, or impulses, to travel to the brain and then to the arms and legs to control sensation and movement.

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

Intervertebral disks have a fiber-like ring (annulus) and a gelatin-like center (nucleus). As people age, the nucleus of the disk 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 pressure to be applied to the spinal cord and nerves.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/02/2015.


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