The vertebrae are the bones which make up the spinal column in humans and other vertebrates. The human body has 33 vertebrae, 24 of which make up the spine. The vertebral body is the largest part of each vertebra. It is a thick bony structure which provides strength to the spine and protection for the spinal cord.
The vertebral body looks like a short cylinder, though the shape varies somewhat depending upon where it is located. There are seven cervical vertebrae which make up the neck. The first cervical vertebra, called the atlas, does not have a vertebral body. It is shaped like a bony ring which rotates around the second cervical vertebra, called the axis, giving the neck the ability to rotate. The bodies of the remaining six cervical vertebrae are more elongated then those in the rest of the spine.
The 12 thoracic vertebrae are located in the mid and upper back. This area of the spine is attached to the ribcage and has very little movement. The body of these vertebrae is shorter than that of a cervical vertebra, and thinner than that found in lumbar region.
The five lumbar vertebral bodies found in the lower back are bigger and thicker than those located in the cervical and thoracic regions. This increased size is necessary to accommodate the weight load and pressure exerted against the lower back. These bones are designed for flexion and extension, but not for rotation. The lumbar region carries the majority of the weight of the body, and is the primary area for back pain.
A bony ring is attached to each vertebral body, and when the vertebrae are stacked together, they form a hollow column for the spinal cord to pass through. The vertebral body is positioned on the outside of the spinal column which gives extra protection to the sensitive cord. Between each vertebra is a soft cushion called an intervertebral disk that operates as a shock absorber and protects the bones from rubbing against one another.
The vertebral body is a load-bearing structure and over time may develop a compression fracture. This is especially true in post-menopausal women or patients suffering from osteoporosis, a condition which causes the bones to thin or loose density. Though less common, compression fractures may also occur as a result of a traumatic incident such as a fall. Symptoms include pain, nerve tingling or pinching and curvature in the spine. The diagnosis is usually confirmed with an x-ray.
A compression fracture usually heals in eight to ten weeks, and treatment generally involves pain control and addressing the underlying cause of the fracture. If the condition is a result of osteoporosis, it is highly probable that the patient will suffer more fractures. In such cases, treatment addresses the loss of bone density and includes medication, calcium and exercise. If the pain is severe, a surgical procedure known as vertebroplasty may be recommended. Vertebroplasty involves the injection of cement into the vertebral body to stabilize the fracture and increase density of the affected area.