Neck joints (also known as cervical vertebrae)
There are seven cervical vertebrae, counted from the bottom of your skull (C1 & C2) to the middle of your torso (where the thoracic vertebrae start).
The structure of the C1 and C2 vertebrae are unique compared to the other vertebrae. C1 and C2 join to form a pivot joint which allows you to rotate your head from side to side, for example when following the ball during a tennis match.
The vertebrae of C3 to C7 look similar in shape. These vertebrae assist you in looking up or down or bending your neck to touch your ear to your shoulder. All the joints (C1 to C7) need to work in harmony and naturally form a curve, called the cervical lordosis. Injury, damage or displacement (in the curve) of one of these joints can cause a sore or stiff neck.
Interesting fact: The C1 cervical vertebrae is named “Atlas” after the Titan warrior condemned to carry the heavens on his shoulders by Zeus in Greek mythology.
Between each of the previously mentioned cervical vertebra is a disc (except for C1 and C2). These discs are circular in shape and have a tough (stringy) outer layer to protect a soft gel-like inner. When your neck joints are put under pressure (or twist and bend in tricky positions), these discs absorb the tension and act as shock absorbers. Neck discs are prone to tearing. A bulging neck disc can limit the space meant for nerves, essentially pinching the nerve. A pinched nerve is commonly known as a “slipped disc” and can be very dangerous.
The cervical vertebrae and neighbouring discs are connected to each other with different ligaments to help stabilise your head and body as you move. When ligaments are too loose, they struggle to steady your movements. Stretching and compressing ligaments can cause damage and result in pain. The most common sudden neck pain injuries (regarding ligaments) includes whiplash, falling or tackling. Together, the neck joints (bony bits), discs and ligaments keep the spinal cord safe by controlling your range of movement.
Spinal cord & nerves
A round channel is seen when looking at your spine from above. This ‘hole’ runs from your brain to your lower back and provides the space needed for your nerves (grouped together to form your spinal cord). Above (C1 to C7) or below (C7) each vertebra the nerves branch out, forming nerve roots. These nerve roots merge and divert to supply and relay messages of sensation from limbs (like your arms) to the brain. These nerves can be scratched or irritated by surrounding structures. For example, a bulging neck disc can take up space meant for nearby nerves, essentially pinching the nerve.