Typical cervical vertebrae, such as C4 or C5, have several characteristic features that differentiate them from thoracic or lumbar vertebrae (Picture 1) (See [[Vertebra]] for the general common features).
Cervical vertebrae have a small body, reflecting the fact that they carry the least amount of body weight. Cervical vertebrae usually have a bifid (Y-shaped) spinous process.
The spinous processes of the C3–C6 vertebrae are short, but the spine of C7 is much longer. You can find these vertebrae by running your finger down the midline of the posterior neck until you encounter the prominent C7 spine located at the base of the neck. The transverse processes of the cervical vertebrae are sharply curved (U-shaped) to allow for passage of the cervical spinal nerves. Each transverse process also has an opening called the transverse foramen. An important artery that supplies the brain ascends up the neck by passing through these openings. The superior and inferior articular processes of the cervical vertebrae are flattened and largely face upward or downward, respectively.
The first and second cervical vertebrae are further modified, giving each a distinctive appearance.
- The first cervical (C1) vertebra is also called the atlas, because this is the vertebra that supports the skull on top of the vertebral column (in Greek mythology, Atlas was the god who supported the heavens on his shoulders). The C1 vertebra does not have a body or spinous process. Instead, it is ring-shaped, consisting of an anterior arch and a posterior arch. The transverse processes of the atlas are longer and extend more laterally than do the transverse processes of any other cervical vertebrae. The superior articular processes face upward and are deeply curved for articulation with the occipital condyles on the base of the skull. The inferior articular processes are flat and face downward to join with the superior articular processes of the C2 vertebra.
- The second cervical (C2) vertebra is called the axis, because it serves as the axis for rotation when turning the head toward the right or left. The axis resembles typical cervical vertebrae in most respects, but is easily distinguished by the dens (odontoid process), a bony projection that extends upward from the vertebral body. The dens joins with the inner aspect of the anterior arch of the atlas, where it is held in place by transverse ligament.