Vertebral Column

Vertebral column is an expression that refers to the spine or backbone that is present in all vertebrate animals.

Definition of Vertebral Column

The vertebral column is the main structure of the axial skeleton of all vertebrate animals.

It consists of the series of vertebrae extending from the atlas bone (the first vertebra at the top of the vertebral column) at base of the skull to the tip of the tail. In humans and in tail-less apes the vertebral column ends with the coccyx (tailbone).

Functions of the Vertebral Column

  1. Permits movement (of the body), although limited movement between individual vertebrae.
  2. Encloses and protects the spinal cord.
  3. Provides points of attachment for the ribs (bones) and muscles of the torso, especially muscles of the back.

Simple Diagram of the Vertebral Column

The following simple diagram of the vertebral column is sufficient for many short answers in tests or exams (always take into account the number of marks available for each question or part of question).

So, to remember the main curves of the vertebral column and to answer short questions about it, memorise the simple diagram of the vertebral column (above, right).

To draw this in a test, first sketch the approximate shape of the elongated "S" which is shown as a thick pink line above-right, then label the four sections in the correct order top-to-bottom and state how many vertebrae form each of the 4 curves, i.e.

Summary of the sections of the Vertebral Column:

  • Cervical curve - 7 vertebrae
  • Thoracic curve - 12 vertebrae
  • Lumbar curve - 5 vertebrae
  • Sacral curve - 5 fused* vertebrae
  • Coccygeal (not shown) - 4 fused* vertebrae

* In this context "fused" means attached together.

Why are there curves in the vertebral column ?

As shown above, the vertebral column includes several curved sections.

Curves are structurally important shapes because they can be extremely efficient in terms of strength and load-carrying capacity (though, of course, the particular curve must be appropriate for its situation and the weight and other forces it must support or withstand).

In the case of the human vertebral column, the curves that form the sections of a normal healthy adult spine enable the person to balance comfortably in an upright position. They also help the body to absorb jolts and other shocks from the usual motions expected in day-to-day life. For example, the shape (including the curves) of the human vertebral column helps to protect it from injuries such as fractures.

More Detailed Diagram of the Vertebral Column

This labelled diagram of the human vertebral column shows the 4 curves of the adult human spine in more detail.

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What else is useful to know about the vertebral column ?

This page is an introduction to the vertebral column for students of first-level courses in Human Biology or Anatomy & Physiology. The knowledge required varies with syllabus and level of study. Further study about this topic might include:

Re. Skeletal System (Bones) only:

  • Definitions of the axial and appendicular skeleton
  • Structure of individual vertebrae.
  • Postural deformities (incl. kyphosis, lordosis and scoliosis) and their causes and consequences.
  • Slightly moveable (also known as 'cartilaginous') joints, examples of which include the invertebral joints.
  • Fetal spine and differences from adult spine.

Re. Other related topics:

  • Spinal nerves (part of the Nervous System)
  • Points of attachment and actions of the muscles of the back (as described as part of the Muscular System)
  • Blood supply to and through the vertebral column
  • Back pain - causes and treatments
  • Vertebral column in other species, compare and contrast e.g. humans vs gorillas

- The end of page about the vertebral column -

See cranial and facial bones, arm bones, bones of the hands & feet and other pages about the skeletal system.

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