The Anatomy of the Palatine Bone

This bone helps form the nasal cavity, eye socket, and palate

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The palatine bone is a paired, L-shaped facial bone that makes up a portion of the nasal cavity and palate. It forms a part of the underside of the skull, and lies between the maxilla bone (the fixed, upper bone of the jaw) and the sphenoid bone (whose wings help form the base of the eye sockets and base of the skull).

People are most likely to encounter a health issue with palatine bones when they need to be numbed during molars and premolar tooth extractions. In some cases, they can be fractured. Palatine bones also may be involved in a cleft palate diagnosis, typically at birth.

This article presents the anatomy, structure, and function of the palatine bone. It also discusses conditions that affect it, and how these conditions may be diagnosed and treated.

Anatomy

The palatine bone has a horizontal and vertical plate as well as a pyramid-shaped portion. The horizontal plate makes up the roof of the mouth, and the rear portion of the oral cavity, just behind the nasal cavity; its front end is serrated and its back end is smoother.

  • The two palatine bones sit next to each other, giving rise to the posterior nasal spine towards the back of this plate. This part also includes the greater palatine foramen, a space that contains the greater palatine nerve as well as its necessary blood vessels.
  • The perpendicular plate of the palatine bone makes up a portion of the sidewall of the nasal cavity at the point where it joins the sphenoid bone and pterygoid process (essential for jaw and mouth movement). This plate also gives rise to the orbital process, which makes up a part of the orbit—the socket where the eye sits.
  • Here, the palatine canal, which runs between the sidewall of the palatine bone and the adjacent maxilla bone, is also observed. This portion also includes a sphenopalatine notch on the upper border that connects with the sphenoid bone.

Finally, the pyramidal process arises at the juncture between the horizontal and perpendicular plates. Here, the lesser palatine canals arise, which house a range of important nerves and arteries.

Dentist taking an X-ray of a woman's mouth
Portra / Getty Images 

Location

The location of the palatine bone is best understood through its borders and articulations, where it connects to other structures.

Its horizontal plate is just behind the maxilla bone of the upper jaw, while lying in front of the soft palate (the soft tissue at the roof of the mouth). The end of this bone’s perpendicular plate closest to the back of the head articulates with the pterygoid process of the sphenoid bone.

On the upper border, this bone helps form the base of the orbital process. The two paired palatine bones join together down the middle of the upper mouth at the median palatine suture.

Anatomical Variations

The most commonly seen anatomical variation in the palatine bone has to do with the positioning of the greater palatine foramen, an opening towards the rear side that allows the descending and greater palatine nerves to pass through.

One study found that in approximately 73% of cases, this opening was located opposite the third upper molar tooth. It also noted a positioning opposite the second molar about 7% of the time, and in between the second and third molar roughly 16% of the time.

While subtle, variations of the palatine bone have significant clinical implications, especially for dentists or dental specialists looking at molar or premolar tooth extraction.

Function

Primarily, the palatine bone serves a structural function, with its shape helping carve out important structures within the head and defining the lower wall of the inside of cranium. This bone helps form the nasal and oral cavities, the roof of the mouth, and the lower portion of the eye sockets (orbits).

As noted above, they also house the greater palatine fossa, openings that allow the palatine nerves to pass through. In this sense, palatine bones help house primary pain-signaling pathways for the mouth and teeth.

Associated Conditions

There are several conditions related to the palatine bone.

In Dentistry

Clinically speaking, this bone is most often considered in dentistry as the greater and lesser palatine nerves, known to be extremely sensitive. When dentists need to extract the upper molars and premolars, these nerves have to be anesthetized (numbed).

Sites of injection need to be carefully monitored—they typically are about 1 centimeter (cm) from the gingival margin (the “height” of the gums)—as there’s a risk of the syringe penetrating the greater palatine foramen.

The same care needs to be taken in children and adolescents, as their nerve pathways continue to develop.

In fact, there are clinical guidelines in place to prevent nerve damage. Dental professionals and specialists, in particular, need to be versed in the variant anatomy of this bone.

Fractures

Palatine bones can fracture due to accidents or falls. These "palatal fractures" are relatively rare and occur most often in adult men. They present a difficult challenge for healthcare providers because of the position of the bone in the face.

There are six major palatine fracture types based on the location of the bone break:

  • Anterior and posterior alveolar (often caused by trauma to the face and teeth)
  • Sagittal
  • Para sagittal
  • Para alveolar
  • Complex
  • Transverse fractures, often accompanying Le Fort fracture of the maxillary bone in the jaw.

Not only can surrounding structures be affected, leading to pain and swelling, but these issues can also lead to malocclusion or misalignment of the teeth.

Cleft Palate

Cleft palate is a congenital deformity typically diagnosed at birth. It happens when the paired halves of the palate fail to properly fuse together during fetal development. Cleft palate and cleft lip are common, occurring in roughly one in 500 to 700 births.

Some types of cleft palate involve the palatine bone.Surgical repair to correct cleft palate is ideally done at about 9 months of age, although it may be done up to age 2. Children are then reassessed for speech development and other factors at school age.

Some cases of cleft palate have been repaired in adults. While cleft palate surgery is generally safe and successful, it's not uncommon for changes made during the procedure to have later impacts.

Torus Palatinus

Torus palatinus describes the development of mostly benign, painless outgrowths from the palatine bone. These tend to arise in the mid-plate of the palate and can occur bilaterally or just one side.

Though usually asymptomatic, and often never noticed by patients, some cases do lead to:

  • Pain
  • Ulcers in the mouth
  • Disrupted chewing
  • Impaired speech

Torus palatinus is a condition that arises most often in adults in their 30s.

Treatment

Palatal fractures are detected using medical imaging methods, usually computed tomography (CT) scans paired with X-ray. This allows doctors to assess the scope and location of the issue.

Treatment varies based on the severity and location of the fracture, and there are two surgeries that most often take it on: open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF) or intermaxillary fixation (IMF).

In both cases, the idea here is that surgeons access the fractured bone, correct any alignment problems, and use splints, orthodontic braces, arch bars, or other methods to set in place.

Pain and inflammation need to be managed following surgery, with the length of recovery depending on how severe the fracture is.

In cases where torus palatinus becomes symptomatic, or if it disrupts chewing and speech ability, doctors employ surgery to alter the shape of the palatine bone and remove the growth. Typically, this involves an incision in the middle of the palate to allow surgeons to get at the problem.

In recovery, which usually takes three to four weeks, pain and inflammation are managed with prescription drugs.

Summary

The paired palatine bone is a key structure of the skull, face, nose, and orbitals (eye sockets) while connecting to other bones, such as the sphenoid. It provides protection and passage for important nerves and blood vessels.

Palatine nerves need to be numbed during certain tooth extractions. Palatine bones also can be fractured and require surgery. Among the most common conditions involving the palatine, though, is a cleft palate diagnosed at or before birth, with repair typically successful.

The palatine bone primarily serves a structural function. If you have concerning symptoms or suspect an injury, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider in order to get an accurate diagnosis.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Mark Gurarie
Mark Gurarie is a freelance writer, editor, and adjunct lecturer of writing composition at George Washington University.