About Your Spine

Spine Anatomy Basics

Understanding the basic structure and function of your spine is important. It will help you understand options for your care and help you understand how to move safely after surgery to help prevent further spine problems.

 There are five major sections of the spine

  • Cervical-the neck region
  • Thoracic- the upper trunk or rib cage region
  • Lumbar- the lower back region
  • Sacrum- a large triangular bone at the bottom of the spine
  • Coccyx- the lowest bone in the spine, known as the "tailbone"

Your spine consists of bony segments called vertebrae. Between each two vertebrae is a structure called a spinal disc, which functions like a shock absorber as you move throughout the day.

Annulus – tough, fibrous outer covering that protects the inner jelly-like substance called the nucleus between each vertebra.

Nucleus – soft, jelly-like substance that provides cushioning between each vertebrae.

Nerve roots- bundles of nerve fibers leaving the spinal cord to provide movement and sensation to the extremities.  Nerve roots exit through a space between each two vertebrae.

Common Spine Problems

There are many different conditions or problems that can occur in the spine. Most of these problems involve the disc and nerves. Regardless of the type of condition, most patients experience pain and difficulty performing basic activities such as walking, sitting, driving, sleeping, bending or lifting. Some of the more common spine problems are illustrated below:

Degenerated disc – has small ruptures or tears in the outer covering (annulus). This may or may not cause any symptoms of pain or discomfort.

Bulging disc – tears in the inner lining of the annulus that allows jelly-like nucleus to bulge outwards. This may cause pain, numbness or tingling in the leg if it presses against a nerve.

Herniated disc – complete tear of the outer covering of the annulus that allows the jelly-like nucleus to ooze out and press against the nerve. In most cases this will cause pain, numbness or tingling.

Thinning disc – the wearing down of the annulus layer causing one vertebra to close in on the vertebra below it.

Osteophytes- boney growth from the vertebra that look like bone spurs.  Depending upon their location on the vertebra, osteophytes may press on nerves.