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Author - Anastasia Belikov, PT, Cert. MDT
Graduated with her DPT in 2017

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Joints of the Spine


Wednesday, June 7, 2023

The spine is a complex and fascinating biological structure, critical for maintaining our upright posture and serving as a conduit for nervous system signals. The range of motion of the spine, involving various joints and segments, allows us to perform an array of movements. Understanding these dynamics offers insight into spinal health, flexibility, injury prevention, and rehabilitation.

The Anatomy of the Spine

The human spine, also referred to as the vertebral column, is composed of 33 individual bones known as vertebrae, stacked one on top of another. These vertebrae are divided into different regions:

  1. Cervical (Neck) - This is the topmost section of the spine consisting of seven vertebrae.

  2. Thoracic (Mid Back) - This section consists of 12 vertebrae, which our ribs attach to form the rib cage.

  3. Lumbar (Lower Back) - This section has five vertebrae, known for bearing the most body weight.

  4. Sacral (Pelvis) - This section is comprised of five fused vertebrae.

  5. Coccygeal (Tailbone) - This section includes four fused vertebrae.

Between each vertebra (except for the fused areas), there are intervertebral discs which act as shock absorbers and allow for movement and flexibility.

Joints and Range of Motion

Each region of the spine has its unique range of motion. The range of motion of a joint is the degree to which it can move or be moved in different directions. There are several types of movements the spine can perform:

  • Flexion (forward bending)

  • Extension (backward bending)

  • Lateral flexion (side bending)

  • Rotation (turning the head or body)

The cervical spine is the most mobile section. It allows for flexion, extension, lateral flexion, and rotation. The movements we know as nodding and shaking our head primarily take place in the cervical region. The atlas and axis (C1 and C2 vertebrae) are specially adapted to facilitate these movements.

The thoracic spine has limited flexion and extension due to the rib cage but has significant capability for rotation. The rotation in the thoracic spine is crucial for twisting movements of the body.

The lumbar spine allows for substantial flexion, extension, and some lateral flexion but has a limited degree of rotation. The lumbar spine is designed for stability and for lifting and carrying heavy objects.

The sacrum and coccyx, being fused, do not contribute much to the range of motion but provide stability and weight-bearing for the body.

There are three main types of joints involved in spinal movement: the intervertebral joints, facet joints, and costovertebral joints.

  • Intervertebral Joints: These joints are between the bodies of the vertebrae and are connected by intervertebral discs. These joints permit flexion and extension and a small amount of rotation.

  • Facet Joints: Located at the posterior part of the spine, these joints are between the vertebrae. They help guide motion and provide stability.

  • Costovertebral Joints: These joints occur between the thoracic vertebrae and the ribs. They help with the mechanics of breathing and limit the range of motion in the thoracic spine.

Maintaining Spinal Health

Understanding the spine's range of motion can help maintain spinal health and prevent injuries. Engaging in regular exercise and flexibility training, such as yoga or pilates, can maintain or improve the spine's range of motion. It's also essential to use correct posture and ergonomics in everyday activities and work settings. Regular check-ups with health professionals can help monitor spinal health, and physical therapists can provide personalized exercises for specific spinal conditions or to rehabilitate from injuries.

In conclusion, the range of motion of the spine involves a complex interplay among various joints and segments. Each region of the spine plays a unique role in allowing our body to perform an array of movements. Keeping our spine healthy is critical to maintaining our overall health and wellness.

Joints of the Spine
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