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Biology LibreTexts

38.1C: Human Axial Skeleton

  • Page ID
    13990
  • The axial skeleton forms the central axis of the human body and consists of the skull, vertebral column, and thoracic cage.

    Learning Objectives

    • Describe the bones and function of the human axial skeleton

    Key Points

    • The axial skeleton provides support and protection for the brain, spinal cord, and the organs in the ventral body cavity; it also provides a surface for the attachment of muscles, directs respiratory movements, and stabilizes portions of the appendicular skeleton.
    • The bones of the skull are divided into cranial bones and facial bones; their main roles consist of supporting the structures of the face and protecting the brain.
    • The vertebral column protects the spinal cord, supports the head, and acts as an attachment point for the ribs and muscles of the back and neck.
    • The thoracic cage’s most notable role is in breathing; however, it also protects the organs of the thoracic cavity, provides support for the shoulder girdles and upper limbs, and functions as the attachment point for the diaphragm, muscles of the back, chest, neck, and shoulders.

    Key Terms

    • intervertebral disc: a disc between the vertebra in the spine
    • ossicle: a small bone (or bony structure), especially one of the three of the middle ear
    • convex: curved or bowed outward like the outside of a bowl, sphere or circle
    • vertebral column: the series of vertebrae that protect the spinal cord; the spinal column
    • concave: curved or bowed inward like the inner surface of a sphere or bowl

    Human Axial Skeleton

    The axial skeleton forms the central axis of the human body and includes the bones of the skull, the ossicles of the middle ear, the hyoid bone of the throat, the vertebral column, and the thoracic cage (ribcage). The function of the axial skeleton is to provide support and protection for the brain, spinal cord, and organs in the ventral body cavity. It also provides a surface for the attachment of muscles that move the head, neck, and trunk; performs respiratory movements; and stabilizes parts of the appendicular skeleton, which will be discussed later.

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    Axial skeleton: The axial skeleton consists of the bones of the skull, ossicles of the middle ear, hyoid bone, vertebral column, and rib cage.

    The Skull

    The bones of the skull support the structures of the face and protect the brain. The skull consists of 22 bones, which are divided into two categories: cranial bones and facial bones. The cranial bones are eight bones that form the cranial cavity, which encloses the brain and serves as an attachment site for the muscles of the head and neck. The eight cranial bones include the frontal bone, two parietal bones, two temporal bones, the occipital bone, the sphenoid bone, and the ethmoid bone.

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    Skull: The bones of the skull support the structures of the face and protect the brain.

    Fourteen facial bones form the face, provide cavities for the sense organs (eyes, mouth, and nose), protect the entrances to the digestive and respiratory tracts, and serve as attachment points for facial muscles. The 14 facial bones are the nasal bones, maxillary bones, zygomatic bones, palatine, vomer, lacrimal bones, inferior nasal conchae, and mandible.

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    Cranial and facial bones: The facial bones of the skull form the face and provide cavities for the eyes, nose, and mouth. The cranial bones, including the frontal, parietal, temporal, occipital, ethmoid, and sphenoid bones.

    The auditory ossicles of the middle ear transmit sounds from the air as vibrations to the fluid-filled cochlea. The auditory ossicles consist of six bones: two malleus bones, two incus bones, and two stapes, one of each on each side. These bones are unique to mammals.

    The hyoid bone lies below the mandible in the front of the neck. It acts as a movable base for the tongue and is connected to muscles of the jaw, larynx, and tongue. The mandible articulates with the base of the skull, controling the opening to the airway and gut. In animals with teeth, the mandible brings the surfaces of the teeth in contact with the maxillary teeth.

    The Vertebral Column

    The vertebral column, or spinal column, surrounds and protects the spinal cord, supports the head, and acts as an attachment point for the ribs and muscles of the back and neck. The adult vertebral column is comprised of 26 bones: the 24 vertebrae, the sacrum, and the coccyx bones. In the adult, the sacrum is typically composed of five vertebrae that fuse into one. We begin life with approximately 33 vertebrae, but as we grow, several vertebrae fuse together. The adult vertebrae are further divided into the 7 cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic vertebrae, and 5 lumbar vertebrae.

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    Vertebral column: (a) The vertebral column consists of seven cervical vertebrae (C1–7), twelve thoracic vertebrae (Th1–12), five lumbar vertebrae (L1–5), the sacrum, and the coccyx. (b) Spinal curves increase the strength and flexibility of the spine.

    Each vertebral body has a large hole in the center through which the nerves of the spinal cord pass. There is also a notch on each side through which the spinal nerves, which serve the body at that level, can exit from the spinal cord. The names of the spinal curves correspond to the region of the spine in which they occur. The thoracic and sacral curves are concave, while the cervical and lumbar curves are convex. The arched curvature of the vertebral column increases its strength and flexibility, allowing it to absorb shocks like a spring.

    Intervertebral discs composed of fibrous cartilage lie between adjacent vertebral bodies from the second cervical vertebra to the sacrum. Each disc is part of a joint that allows for some movement of the spine, acting as a cushion to absorb shocks from movements, such as walking and running. Intervertebral discs also act as ligaments to bind vertebrae together. The inner part of discs, the nucleus pulposus, hardens as people age, becoming less elastic. This loss of elasticity diminishes its ability to absorb shocks.

    The Thoracic Cage

    The thoracic cage, also known as the ribcage, is the skeleton of the chest. It consists of the ribs, sternum, thoracic vertebrae, and costal cartilages. The thoracic cage encloses and protects the organs of the thoracic cavity, including the heart and lungs. It also provides support for the shoulder girdles and upper limbs, and serves as the attachment point for the diaphragm, muscles of the back, chest, neck, and shoulders. Changes in the volume of the thorax enable breathing.

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    Thoracic cage: The thoracic cage, or rib cage, protects the heart and the lungs.

    The sternum, or breastbone, is a long, flat bone located at the anterior of the chest. It is formed from three bones that fuse in the adult. The ribs are 12 pairs of long, curved bones that attach to the thoracic vertebrae and curve toward the front of the body, forming the ribcage. Costal cartilages connect the anterior ends of the ribs to the sternum, with the exception of rib pairs 11 and 12, which are free-floating ribs.