Articulations of the Vertebral Column

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The atlantoaxial joint is a pivot type of joint between the dens portion of the axis (C2 vertebra) and the anterior arch of the atlas (C1 vertebra), with the dens held in place by a ligament.

Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

In addition to being held together by the intervertebral discs, adjacent vertebrae also articulate with each other at synovial joints formed between the superior and inferior articular processes called zygapophysial joints (facet joints). These are plane joints that provide for only limited motions between the vertebrae. The orientation of the articular processes at these joints varies in different regions of the vertebral column and serves to determine the types of motions available in each vertebral region. The cervical and lumbar regions have the greatest ranges of motions.

In the neck, the articular processes of cervical vertebrae are flattened and generally face upward or downward. This orientation provides the cervical vertebral column with extensive ranges of motion for flexion, extension, lateral flexion, and rotation. In the thoracic region, the downward projecting and overlapping spinous processes, along with the attached thoracic cage, greatly limit flexion, extension, and lateral flexion. However, the flattened and vertically positioned thoracic articular processes allow for the greatest range of rotation within the vertebral column. The lumbar region allows for considerable extension, flexion, and lateral flexion, but the orientation of the articular processes largely prohibits rotation.

The atlantoaxial joint, between the atlas and axis, consists of three articulations. The paired superior articular processes of the axis articulate with the inferior articular processes of the atlas. These articulating surfaces are relatively flat and oriented horizontally. The third articulation is the pivot joint formed between the dens, which projects upward from the body of the axis, and the inner aspect of the anterior arch of the atlas. A strong ligament passes posterior to the dens to hold it in position against the anterior arch. These articulations allow the atlas to rotate on top of the axis, moving the head toward the right or left, as when shaking your head “no.”


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: