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What are Transitional Vertebrae?

By C. Martin
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Transitional vertebrae are abnormally formed vertebral bones that display the characteristics of two different types of vertebrae. The human spine is made up of 33 bones called vertebrae, with the spinal cord running through the middle. In adults, five of these bones fuse to form the sacrum, which is the bony back part of the pelvis, and another four fuse to form the coccyx or tailbone. The other vertebrae of the spine are individual bones. Although they are not normal, transitional vertebrae are not usually a problem for most people who have them.

The vertebrae in different sections of the spine have different structures and characteristics. The cervical spine forms the neck, the thoracic spine is in the region of the chest, and the lumbar spine supports the lower back. The locations at which the segments join are called the cervicothoracic, thoracolumbar, and lumbosacral regions of the spine. Vertebrae that occur at these junctions may develop abnormalities; for example, a lumbosacral transitional vertebra would have characteristics of both a normal lumbar vertebra and a normal sacral vertebra.

The structural changes that are seen in these vertebrae are usually related to either the vertebral arch, the transverse processes, or both. The vertebral arch is the posterior part of the vertebra and forms the back of the vertebral foramen, the hole at the center of the vertebra through which the spinal cord passes. The transverse processes are two bony protrusions that arise from each vertebra, which form the attachment points for muscles and ligaments.

A transitional vertebra found at the junction of the neck and the chest region of the spine is called a cervicothoracic transitional vertebra. An example of this type would be one that shows a change in structure in the lowest cervical vertebra so that the transverse processes, instead of being typical of a neck vertebra, take on the appearance of the processes of a thoracic vertebra. The thoracic vertebrae have special transverse processes that articulate with the ribs, and a vertebra that forms the base of the neck may have transverse processes that look as though they would be suitable for articulation with the ribs.

This type of abnormalities are quite common, found in about one in five adults, and usually do not cause any problems. Lumbosacral transitional vertebrae in the lower back are sometimes associated with back pain, however. Some types of arthritis, spinal disk disorders, and painful compression of the spinal cord may also be correlated with abnormal vertebrae at the lumbosacral junction.

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Discussion Comments
By anon280576 — On Jul 18, 2012

I have had pain on the left just above waist high, for about a month. Sometimes it's in the back, sometimes in the front.

After ultrasound tests, they said they found gallstone sludge on the left and a kidney stone on the right. The doctor ordered a CT scan, with no mention of the previous but did mention osteopenia, moderately advanced degenerative changes of the bilateral lower facet joints, and the statement that "transitional segment is seen at the lumbosacral junction. I am wondering if any of the above could cause the pain I am speaking of.

It seems to come on pretty easily when I do much of anything. We seem to have come to a standstill here, and I'm wondering if I should see a chiropractor, rheumatologist or an orthopedic doctor.

By angelBraids — On Apr 26, 2011

I work with someone who suffered vertebrae pain for years. Now she's been diagnosed and is getting treatment, but one small thing has turned her life around. A shoe lift!

She tells me that her pelvis was slightly tilted, which made one leg longer than the other. Now she has the shoe insert the pain is pretty much gone.

By yumdelish — On Apr 24, 2011

@Penzance356 - Please tell your mom not to panic, there are lots of other treatments available, and as far as I know surgery is pretty much a last resort.

My gran was originally diagnosed with a condition called butterfly vertebrae, but later found to have the same problem as your mother, in the lumbar region. She's doing much better these days, with a mix of chiropracty, a body brace and some physical therapy.

Overall it's really important to improve core body strength. That's hard when you are in a lot of pain but it does improve the chances of a good recovery. I hope this helps.

By Penzance356 — On Apr 22, 2011

My mother has just been diagnosed with this condition, though the doctor said she was born with it! While I'm glad she has escaped the pain for so many years it's a bit of a worry right now.

When she saw the doctor, she panicked and only really heard the phrase 'vertebrae surgery', but I'm sure there are other, less drastic treatments out there.

I would appreciate any advice from people who have experience of this, particularly on the treatment they received.

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