Nerve roots anatomy

A nerve root is the point where a nerve branches off from the central spinal cord and travels out to the body, sending and receiving sensory and motor signals to that area. The spine is carefully constructed to support the upper body and protect the spinal cord, and the nerve roots are particularly vulnerable to compression from narrowing of the nerve root exits. Pain and symptoms from many common spine conditions, like arthritis or herniated discs, can result from this narrowing — also called foraminal stenosis.

Overview of the nerve roots

Spinal nerve roots connect the central nervous system — the brain and spinal cord — to the peripheral nervous system, which consists of all other nerves. The human body has 31 pairs of spinal nerves, each pair formed by nerve fibers that branch off the spinal cord as a nerve root. Each nerve root is attached to the spinal cord by two rootlets: a ventral rootlet in the front and a dorsal rootlet in the back. Dorsal rootlets carry sensory impulses to the spinal cord, and ventral rootlets carry impulses from the spinal cord to the body.

Nerve roots, a vital part of our anatomy, are located in each region of the spine and, according to their location, can cause symptoms of pain, tingling, numbness and muscle weakness if compressed, including:

  • Cervical spine nerve roots (eight) — are located in the neck; symptoms from compression radiate through the neck, shoulders, arms and hands
  • Thoracic spine nerve roots (12) — these are located in the middle of the spine; compression here can affect the rib cage and abdomen
  • Lumbar spine nerve roots (five) — these are located in the lower back; compression may cause traveling symptoms through the buttocks and down the entire leg
  • Sacral nerve roots (five) — these are located at the base of the spine, between the hip bones; compression here can cause pelvic pain and bowel dysfunction
  • Coccygeal nerve root (one) — located in the tailbone; compression can cause rectal pain

Treating nerve root issues

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, consult your physician immediately for an examination and diagnosis. Your physician may prescribe exercise, rest, cortisone injections, anti-inflammatory steroids or other conservative treatments, depending on the location and severity of the pinched nerve. Many patients are able to find meaningful relief and return to normal activity from a course of these treatments.

Surgery to decompress nerve roots can become an option if conservative methods are exhausted. Traditional open back surgery typically comes with overnight hospitalization and a high risk of infection. There is usually a long and painful recovery period required for the large surgical incision to heal.

Reach out to Laser Spine Institute to learn about the advantages that minimally invasive spine surgery can offer patients. Our surgeons use smaller, muscle-sparing incisions that dramatically reduce recovery time^ and lead to less surgical scarring compared to traditional open spine procedures. To learn more and find out if you are a candidate for our procedures, contact our Care Team today for your no-cost MRI review.*