The first cervical vertebra is named the atlas (C I) because it supports the globe of the head. Its chief peculiarity is that it has no body, and this is due to the fact that the body of the atlas has fused with that of the next vertebra. Its other peculiarities are that it has no spinous process, is ring-like, and consists of an anterior and a posterior arch and two lateral masses.
The anterior arch forms about one-fifth of the ring: its anterior surface is convex, and presents at its center the anterior tubercle for the attachment of the Longus colli muscles; posteriorly it is concave, and marked by a smooth, oval or circular facet (fovea dentis), for articulation with the odontoid process (dens) of the axis.
The upper and lower borders respectively give attachment to the anterior atlantooccipital membrane and the anterior atlantoaxial ligament; the former connects it with the occipital bone above, and the latter with the axis below.
The posterior arch forms about two-fifths of the circumference of the ring: it ends behind in the posterior tubercle, which is the rudiment of a spinous process and gives origin to the Recti capitis posteriores minores. The diminutive size of this process prevents any interference with the movements between the atlas and the skull.
The posterior part of the arch presents above and behind a rounded edge for the attachment of the posterior atlantoöccipital membrane, while immediately behind each superior articular process is a groove (sulcus arteriæ vertebralis), sometimes converted into a foramen by a delicate bony spiculum which arches backward from the posterior end of the superior articular process. This groove represents the superior vertebral notch, and serves for the transmission of the vertebral artery, which, after ascending through the foramen in the transverse process, winds around the lateral mass in a direction backward and medialward; it also transmits the suboccipital (first spinal) nerve.
On the under surface of the posterior arch, behind the articular facets, are two shallow grooves, the inferior vertebral notches.
The lower border gives attachment to the posterior atlantoaxial ligament, which connects it with the axis.
The lateral masses are the most bulky and solid parts of the atlas, in order to support the weight of the head. Each carries two articular facets, a superior and an inferior:
The transverse processes are large; they project lateralward and downward from the lateral masses, and serve for the attachment of muscles which assist in rotating the head. They are long, and their anterior and posterior tubercles are fused into one mass; the foramen transversarium is directed from below, upward and backward.