In this anatomy lesson, I’m going to cover the major ligaments of the vertebral column. Let’s recap for a moment. What are ligaments? Ligaments are those strong bands of fibrous connective tissue that primarily connect bones together, adding both strength and stability to them. Less commonly, they also connect organs or cartilage. Tendons, on the other hand, connect muscles to bones.
I remember it like this: Ligaments link lanky bones; tendons touch tough muscles.
Ligaments, along with other tissue, help keep our bones together in their proper position. As you might have guessed, the ligaments of the vertebral column are going to attach at different points to strengthen and stabilize the bones of your spine, keeping them from moving too much in one direction.
Here are some of the most important ones that you’ll want to know these ligaments for exams:
Anterior Longitudinal Ligament
Let’s break down the name of this ligament. The first word is “anterior,” so this tells us that this ligament is going to be located on the front surface of the bodies of the vertebrae, which is the side closest to your stomach. Longitudinal tells us that it is vertical and “long,” running along the entire front surface of the vertebral column, attaching to both the intervertebral discs and the vertebral bodies. The primary function of this ligament is to prevent hyperextension, which happens when there is excess bending of the spine in the backward direction.
Posterior Longitudinal Ligament
The posterior longitudinal ligament runs along the posterior (or back) surface of the vertebral bodies (posterior means toward the back of the body). This ligament is situated within the vertebral canal, and it prevents hyperflexion, which is when bend your spine too far forward. Therefore, these first two ligaments (posterior and anterior longitudinal ligaments) are going to keep the spine from bending too far forward or backward while adding strength.
Next, we have the intertransverse ligaments. “Inter” means “between” and “transverse” means “extending across.” This ligament’s name refers to the transverse processes of each vertebra. These ligaments run between and attach to the adjacent transverse process of each vertebra, preventing excess lateral flexion (side movement). In other words, these ligaments keep your spine from bending too much to the left or ride side.
Next we have the ligamentum flavum, which in the Latin simply means “yellow ligament.” This yellowish, elastic ligament connects to the laminae of the vertebrae above and below via short, paired ligaments, allowing the spinal column to stretch and then return to its original position during and after flexion (bending forward). These short ligaments run from vertebrae C2 to S1.
Ligaments of the Sacrum
As we move to the inferior portion of the vertebral column, there are several ligaments that attach the sacrum to various points of the hip bones. Here are the important ones that you’ll want to know:
These ligaments run from the sacrum to the ilium of each hip bone, and they consist of the anterior (front), posterior (back), and interosseous ligaments (between).
As the name suggests, this ligament runs from the ischial tuberosity and attaches to the transverse tubercles of the sacrum, as well as parts of the superior portion of the coccyx.
Again, take a look at the name and it will help you out. “Sacro” tells us that it attaches to the sacrum (outer edge), and “spinous” hints that this ligament is going to attach to the spine of the ischium.
Finally, we have the iliolumbar ligament. “Ilio” hints that this ligament will attach from the crest of the ilium of the hip bone, and run to the transverse process of the last lumbar vertebra (L5).
You also have ligaments that attach from the sacrum bone to the coccyx bone, both anteriorly and posteriorly, and these are called sacrococcygeal ligaments.
There are also ligaments that attach the ribs to the thoracic vertebrae, and their names are a dead giveaway: costotransverse ligaments connect the neck and tubercle of the ribs (costo means rib) to the transverse processes of the vertebrae. A lumbocostal ligament runs from the transverse process of L1 and L2, and attaches to the last pair of floating ribs (rib 12).
Intra-articular Ligament of Head of Rib
If you think back to my video on the rib anatomy, you’ll remember that there are two little facets on the head of the rib, which are separated by an inter-articular crest. As you might have guessed, the intra-articular ligament of head of rib attaches this inter-articular crest of the rib to the intervertebral disc.
Radiate Ligament of Head of Rib
The radiate ligament connects the anterior part of the rib’s head with the intervertebral disc and sides of the body of two adjacent vertebrae.
The prefix “inter” means “between,” and “spinous” refers to the spinous process of the vertebrae. Therefore, these ligaments run between the spinous process of each vertebrae, meeting the ligamentum flavum anteriorly and the supraspinous ligament posteriorly. These ligaments prevent hyperflexion by stabilizing the spinous process of each vertebra.
The prefix “supra” means above or upon, and “spinous” refers to spinous process of the vertebrae. Therefore, this ligament attaches upon the tip of the spinous process of vertebrae C7 to the sacrum, and anteriorly, it meets the interspinous ligaments that run between the spinous process of each vertebra.
Although the supraspinous ligament technically stops at C7, in a sense, it continues up to the external occipital protuberance of the skull. However, anatomists refer to this section of the ligament between C7 and the external occipital protuberance as the “nuchal ligament.” The word “nuchal” refers to the nape of the neck, and this ligament helps prevent hyperflexion in the neck region.
As we work our way up the vertebral column, we come to the top two cervical vertebrae: C2, which is called axis, and C1, which is also called atlas. Axis (C2) has two alar ligaments that attach the dens of axis to the occipital condyle tubercles on the base of the skull.
The apical ligament runs from the odontoid process of C2 (axis) and attaches to the edge of the foramen magnum, which is the large opening in the occipital bone.
Cruciate Ligament of Atlas
Next we have the cruciate ligament of atlas, which is C1. The word cruciate comes from the Latin, and it means cross (think crucifix). The reason they call it the cruciate or “cross” ligament, is that it has two bands (transverse and longitudinal) that intersect in a cross-like pattern.
Free Quiz and More Anatomy Videos
Take a free vertebral column ligaments anatomy quiz to test your knowledge, or review our vertebral column ligaments anatomy video. In addition, you might want to watch our anatomy and physiology lectures on YouTube, or check our anatomy and physiology notes.