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Elements of the Spine


The elements of the spine are designed to protect the spinal cord, support the body and facilitate movement.

A. Vertebrae 
The vertebrae support the majority of the weight imposed on the spine. The body of each vertebra is attached to a bony ring consisting of several parts. A bony projection on either side of the vertebral body called the pedicle supports the arch that protects the spinal canal. The laminae are the parts of the vertebrae that form the back of the bony arch that surrounds and covers the spinal canal. There is a transverse process on either side of the arch where some of the muscles of the spinal column attach to the vertebrae. The spinous process is the bony portion of the vertebral body that can be felt as a series of bumps in the center of a person's neck and back.

B. Intervertebral Disc 
Between the spinal vertebrae are discs, which function as shock absorbers and joints. They are designed to absorb the stresses carried by the spine while allowing the vertebral bodies to move with respect to each other. Each disc consists of a strong outer ring of fibers called the annulus fibrosis, and a soft center called the nucleus pulposus. The outer layer (annulus) helps keep the disc's inner core (nucleus) intact. The annulus is made up of very strong fibers that connect each vertebra together. The nucleus of the disc has a very high water content, which helps maintain its flexibility and shock-absorbing properties.

C. Facet Joint 
The facet joints connect the bony arches of each of the vertebral bodies. There are two facet joints between each pair of vertebrae, one on each side. Facet joints connect each vertebra with those directly above and below it, and are designed to allow the vertebral bodies to rotate with respect to each other.

D. Neural Foramen 
The neural foramen is the opening through which the nerve roots exit the spine and travel to the rest of the body. There are two neural foramen located between each pair of vertebrae, one on each side. The foramen creates a protective passageway for the nerves that carry signals between the spinal cord and the rest of the body.

E. Spinal Cord and Nerves 
The spinal cord extends from the base of the brain to the area between the bottom of the first lumbar vertebra and the top of the second lumbar vertebra. The spinal cord ends by diverging into individual nerves that travel out to the lower body and the legs. Because of its appearance, this group of nerves is called the cauda equina - the Latin name for "horse's tail." The nerve groups travel through the spinal canal for a short distance before they exit the neural foramen.

The spinal cord is covered by a protective membrane called the dura mater, which forms a watertight sac around the spinal cord and nerves. Inside this sac is spinal fluid, which surrounds the spinal cord.

The nerves in each area of the spinal cord are connected to specific parts of the body. Those in the cervical spine, for example, extend to the upper chest and arms; those in the lumbar spine the hips, buttocks and legs. The nerves also carry electrical signals back to the brain, creating sensations. Damage to the nerves, nerve roots or spinal cord may result in symptoms such as pain, tingling, numbness and weakness, both in and around the damaged area and in the extremities.

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