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Craniovertebral joints and ligaments

Learning objectives

After completing this study unit you will be able to: 

  1. Identify the joints of the craniovertebral region. 
  2. Name and point out the craniovertebral ligaments.

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The craniovertebral joints, as the name suggests, describe the skeletal connections between the cranium and the vertebral column. They are synovial joints, allowing for a large range of motion. The craniovertebral joints can be divided into two main articulations: the atlantooccipital joint and the atlantoaxial joints.

The atlantooccipital joint refers to the articulation between the superior articular surfaces of the atlas (C1) and the occipital condyles of the occipital bone. This joint permits flexion and extension and is used when nodding the head. Contributing to the stabilisation of the atlantooccipital articulation are the anterior and posterior atlantooccipital membranes, which extend from the atlas to the margins of the foramen magnum of the cranium. 

The atlantoaxial joints are formed by three articulations: two lateral atlantoaxial joints and one median atlantoaxial joint. The lateral atlantoaxial joints are formed by the articulations between the articular facets of the atlas and axis (C2) while the median atlantoaxial joint is formed by the articulation between the dens of axis and the anterior arch of atlas. These three joints permit rotation of the head and are further stabilized by the transverse ligament, the cruciform ligament, the alar ligaments and the tectorial membrane.

Find out more about the craniovertebral joints and ligaments by watching the video below.

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Browse atlas

Take a closer look at the joints and ligaments of the craniovertebral region in the gallery below!


Lateral atlanto-axial joints (synovial plane): 

Key points about the craniovertebral joints and ligaments
Joints Atlantooccipital joint:
Ellipsoid/condyloid joint
Superior articular surfaces of lateral masses of atlas
Occipital condyles of occipital bone

Atlantoaxial joints

Median atlantoaxial joint
Pivot joint
Dens of axis
Anterior arch of atlas

Lateral atlantoaxial joints
Plane joint
Inferior facets of lateral masses of atlas
Superior facets of axis
Joint movement Atlantooccipital joint: Flexion/extension and slight rotation
Atlantoaxial joint: Rotation
Ligaments  Atlantooccipital joint:
Anterior atlanto-occipital membrane
Posterior atlanto-occipital membrane
Anterior atlanto-occipital ligament
Lateral atlanto-occipital ligament
Atlantoaxial joints:
Anterior atlantoaxial membrane
Posterior atlantoaxial membrane
Anterior atlantodental ligament
Alar ligaments
Transverse occipital ligament
Apical ligament of dens
Cruciform ligament: Longitudinal bands of cruciform ligament and transverse ligament of atlas
Tectorial membrane

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