The Skeleton - How the bones of the skeletal system fit and work together

Medical textbooks name a total of 206 bones making up the skeletal system of the normal, adult human being. The words “normal” and “adult” are significant. A newborn baby normally has 33 vertebrae making up its backbone (also called spinal column or simply spine ); but by the time a person reaches adulthood, the number of individual vertebrae has shrunk to 26. The explanation: during the growth process, the nine bottom vertebrae fuse naturally into just two. In like fashion, we “lose” some 60 bones as we grow up. Some otherwise perfectly normal adults have “extra” bones or “missing” bones. For example, although the normal number of ribs is 12 pairs, some adults may have 11; others may have 13 pairs.

Even a practicing physician might be hard-pressed to identify each of our 200-plus bones and describe its function. An easier way to gain a general understanding of the various functions, capabilities—and weaknesses, too—of our bones is to visualize the skeletal system as a standing coatrack, say, about six feet high.

Call the central pole the backbone. About ten inches down from its top (the top of your skull) is a horizontal crossbar (your shoulders—collarbones and shoulder blades), approximately a foot-and-a-half across. Sixteen or so inches below the bottom of the top crossbar is another, shorter crossbar, broader and thicker—the pelvic girdle . The coatrack with its two crossbars is now a crude model of the bones of the head and trunk, collectively called the axial skeleton . Its basic unit is the backbone, to which are attached the skull at the top, then the bones of the shoulder girdle, the ribs, and at the bottom, the bones of the pelvic girdle.

By hanging down (or appending) members from the two ends of the top crossbar, and doing the same at the lower crossbar, we would simulate what is called the appendicular skeleton— arms and hands, legs and feet.

Now, make the coatrack stand on its new legs, cut off the central pole just below the lower bar (if you wish, calling it man's lost tail), and you have the two main components of the skeletal system, joined together before you. Let us look at each more closely.

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