The tectorial membrane: Anatomical, biomechanical, and histological analysis

R. Shane Tubbs, David R. Kelly, E. Rita Humphrey, Gina D. Chua, Mohammadali M. Shoja, E. George Salter, Leslie Acakpo-Satchivi, John C. Wellons, Jeffrey P. Blount, W. Jerry Oakes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


There is minimal information in the literature regarding the tectorial membrane. Further, information in the literature regarding the anatomy and function of this structure is often contradictory. We performed the current study to elucidate further this structure's detailed anatomy, function, and histology. Thirteen adult cadavers underwent dissection of their tectorial membranes and detailed observations and measurements were made of them. Ranges of motion of the craniocervical junction were performed before and after transection of this structure. Histological analysis was performed on all membranes. The tectorial membrane was found to attach much more superiorly than previously described and was found to be firmly adherent to the cranial base and body of the axis but not to the posterior aspect of the odontoid process. The mean thickness of this membrane was found to be 1 mm. Flexion of the head made the tectorial membrane fully taut at 15° and extension made it fully taut at 20°; however, there was a buckling effect (redundant tectorial membrane) noted at the level of the odontoid process in extension. With the alar and transverse ligaments cut and with flexion of the head, the middle portion of this membrane was stretched over the odontoid process, thus acting as a "hammock" that inhibited the odontoid process from moving posteriorly. The tectorial membrane did not limit cervical flexion per se but rather helped to insure that the odontoid process did not impinge into the cervical canal. Lateral flexion was not found to be limited by this structure. Histologically, parallel collagen fibers with spindle-shaped fibrocytes were observed within this membrane and near its attachment to the posterior axis, the collagen fibers were noted to be more homogenous with larger nonspindled fibrocytes. At the cranial attachment of the tectorial membrane, multiple calcified areas were noted that interdigitated with the underlying bone. Also near this cephalic bony attachment, there was an increase in the number of elastic fibers, which were found running parallel with the surrounding Type III collagen fibers. The tectorial membrane was found to attach much more superiorly than previously described. We would propose that the tectorial membrane provides for a second line of defense, preventing the odontoid process from compressing the spinal cord and by doing so, secondarily limits movement of the craniocervical juncture. This hypothesis is strengthened by the finding of many elastic fibers in the tectorial membrane. To our knowledge, our study is the first to perform a detailed histological analysis of the tectorial membrane. We hope that these data are useful to the clinician who investigates this ligament of the craniocervical region.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)382-386
Number of pages5
JournalClinical Anatomy
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Anatomy
  • Craniocervical
  • Ligaments
  • Neck
  • Skull base

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Histology


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