In this post: Dysfunctional cervical spine muscles can cause pain in several areas of your upper body. Here’s a non-medical person’s guide to the neck’s structure, nerves, and muscles.
It’s possible that you don’t know much about your cervical spine. Even as a Pilates and yoga instructor who has studied anatomy for years, my knowledge was very limited. When I had clients with neck injuries or pain, I would quickly learn about the cervical spine muscles that I thought might be causing their pain. Then, we would work on relieving the tight muscles and getting rid of their pain.
It wasn’t until I broke my neck that I became really interested in the cervical spine muscles and nerves. As I was recovering, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the bones in my neck, muscles, and nerves. In my case, I wanted to prepare myself for any pain or difficulty that might come my way once I was free to remove my neck brace. Here’s what I discovered.
To find out more about my healing experience, read my book, Snapped: A Helpful Guide for Broken Neck Recovery.
Your Cervical Vertebrae
You have 7 cervical vertebrae. Your very first vertebra is known as C1, and it’s also called the atlas. According to Wikipedia.com, it is so named because, like the mythological legend Atlas, it is carrying a great weight. Unlike the legend, your atlas is carrying the weight of your skull and not the Earth.
The second vertebra, C2, is also called the axis. This is because the axis is the pivot point that helps the skull and atlas turn when you look from side to side. These top two cervical vertebrae are shaped slightly differently from each other and from the lower cervical vertebrae because their functions differ.
None of the other vertebrae have fun names, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not important. These lower cervical vertebrae are responsible for supporting the head and neck, protecting the spinal cord, and creating space and structure for nerves and blood vessels.
In the middle of each vertebra is a rather large space for the spinal cord to pass through. To the left and right sides, there are little grooves and holes in the bone to allow for nerves and blood vessels. The nerves come off of the spinal cord and serve as a network for communication with the upper body.
Nerves From the Cervical Spine
The nerves that come directly off of the spinal cord are named in conjunction with the vertebra beneath them. For example, the C7 nerve comes off of the spinal cord above the C7 vertebra and passes through the C6-C7 neural foramen. (The foramen is the opening between vertebrae through which nerves pass.)
Since there are only 7 cervical vertebrae, it might seem odd to see a C8 nerve listed. The C8 nerve exits between C7 and T1. It still works with the other cervical spine nerves, so that’s why it’s listed as C8 and not T1.
According to spine-health.com, here are the duties of the nerves at each vertebra:
- C1 (Atlas) controls movements of the head and neck, including forward, backward, and sideways movements.
- C2 (Axis) controls movements of the head and neck, including forward, backward, and sideways movements. It is also responsible for sensation on the top of the head.
- C3 controls movements of the head and neck, including forward, backward, and sideways movements. It is also responsible for sensation on the side of the face and on the back of the head.
- C4 “helps control the shoulders as well as the diaphragm.” This nerve greatly impacts breathing.
- C5 controls the muscles in your shoulders, upper arm, and possibly forearm. This includes the deltoids and biceps.
- C6 controls the wrist extensors and also can feed into the biceps. The area covered starts at “the top of the shoulders and runs down the side of the arm and into the thumb side of the hand.”
- C7 controls the triceps and goes from “the shoulder down the back of the arm and into the middle finger.”
- C8 controls the hands and “covers the lower part of the shoulder and goes down the arm into the pinky side of the hand.”
As you can see, the nerves that come from the cervical spine impact your sensation in your head, neck, diaphragm, shoulders, arms, and hands. The nerves send messages to the muscles in these parts of your body. Unfortunately, sometimes tight muscles connected to the spine can impact the quality or the content of the messages being sent.
Cervical Spine Muscles
Your brain has something it wants your left hand to do. It sends a message down, through the spinal cord, out through the appropriate nerve root, and the message goes to the left hand. But what if you have a vertebra out of place, slightly compressing the nerve root?
Unfortunately, the message gets relayed more like a game of telephone. Sure, the message might come out as intended. However, it may become garbled along the way.
Muscles That Impact the Neck
Because of this, it’s important to know which muscles connect to the cervical spine. This is a list of all of the muscles that I’ve found that connect to any portion of the cervical vertebrae.
- Levator Scapulae: Levator scapulae originates on C1-C4. It helps lift your scapula (shoulder blade) and, by working the opposite way, helps lower your ear toward your shoulder.
- Rhomboid Minor: Rhomboid minor originates on C7 and T1. Its primary job is to retract and elevate the scapula.
- Scalenes: The anterior scalenes originate on C3-C6, the medial scalenes originate on C2-C7, and the posterior scalenes originate on C4-C6. Scalenes help you to bring your ear toward the shoulder of the working muscle and turn your head away from the working muscle.
- Spinal Muscles: Spinal muscles run all up and down your spine. It’s safe to say that each cervical vertebrae has several spinal muscles connected to it. These spinal muscles help you keep a neutral spine, extend it, rotate it, and flex it to the side.
- Sternocleidomastoid: This muscle inserts on the base of your skull. Sternocleidomastoid helps you bring your ear toward the shoulder of the working muscle and turn your head away from the working muscle.
- Upper Trapezius: The upper trapezius originates at the base of the skull and on C7. Primarily, the upper trapezius elevates the scapula like when you’re shrugging your shoulder.
So What Do I Do With This Information?
Now, you know approximately which nerves from your cervical spine are responsible for which muscles or areas of your upper body. Let’s say you have an odd sensation in your left hand. You look at the cervical nerves and see that C6 goes to the thumb side of the hand, C7 goes to the middle finger, and C8 goes to the pinkie finger side of the hand. Your odd sensation is right in the middle of your hand, straight down from your middle finger; you think you might be having an issue with C7.
Next, look at the muscles that connect to C7. Obviously, there will be several cervical spine muscles on C7, but there is also rhomboid minor, the medial scalene, and the upper trapezius. If these muscles are tight, they may be impacting the nerve’s ability to communicate.
Try stretches, massage, and use tools like a lacrosse ball or The Orb to help you get into tight spots. If you notice that you’re still having an odd sensation, call your doctor. Your doctor can order all of the appropriate tests, medications, and therapy to get you the help you need.
To learn more about my experience healing a broken neck, check out my book, Snapped: A Helpful Guide for Broken Neck Recovery.
Do you have more information to add about the cervical spine? If you do, please comment below.
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