Spinal Nerve Anatomy and Function
There are 31 pairs of spinal nerves that originate from and branch off of the spinal cord. These nerves function to connect the spinal cord to the body and make up what is known as the peripheral nervous system. The nerves extend the full length of the spine. There are eight pairs of nerves located in the cervical spine (or neck area); 12 pairs of nerves located in the thoracic spine (or mid back); five pairs of nerves located in the lumbar spine (or lower back); five pairs of nerves located in the sacral spine (or pelvis); and one pair of nerves at the coccygeal (or the tail end of the spine).
What do spinal nerves do? There are two types of spinal nerves: those that carry information from the brain to muscles (motor neurons) and those that carry information, such as skin temperature, touch, and pain, from the body back to the brain (sensory neurons). Below is information on the functional of spinal nerves according to their location along the spine:
- Cervical nerves – supply movement and feeling to the arms, neck, and upper trunk. They also work to control breathing.
- Thoracic nerves – supply movement and feeling to the trunk and abdomen.
- Lumbar nerves – supply movement and feeling to the legs, bladder, bowel, and sexual organs.
Common Conditions that Affect Spinal Nerves
Although the nerves at different levels of the spine have different functions, damage or injury to the spinal cord does not always correlate with the same spinal nerve level. This is important to keep in mind when evaluating the root cause of back pain or other symptoms. Compressive neuropathy and peripheral neuropathy are two common conditions that can affect the spinal nerves. Compressive neuropathy occurs when the nerves in the spine are compressed; whereas peripheral neuropathy occurs as a result of degeneration, toxicity, or a nutritional imbalance.
Symptoms of a compressive neuropathy include sciatica, which typically involves radiating pain in the buttocks, down the legs, below the knees, and in the ankles and feet. Tingling, numbness, and weakness are other sensations often experienced with sciatica. Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy include a burning sensation or a feeling of pins and needles, numbness in the toes or fingers, and a feeling of weakness when gripping an object or while walking. If you experience any of these symptoms on a routine basis, contact the back specialists and spine surgeons at University Spine Associates. Call 609-924-8060 to schedule your first consultation.