Autonomic nervous system — overview

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates the unconscious function of the organs, including the heart, stomach, lungs and the intestines.

The ANS is part of the peripheral nervous system, which connects the organs and limbs to the central nervous system — the brain and the spinal cord. In addition to the ANS, the peripheral nervous system also includes the somatic nervous system, which regulates voluntary muscular activity such as arm and leg movement.

Autonomic nervous system parts

The autonomic nervous system is composed of three parts: the sympathetic, parasympathetic and enteric nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system controls our response to stress, the fight-or-flight impulse, and originates in the thoracic spine. The parasympathetic nervous system regulates smooth muscle contraction and originates in the cranium and the sacral region of the spine. The enteric nervous system controls digestion and is associated with one of the cranial nerves, called the vagus.

The autonomic nervous system consists of neurons, axons, synapses and ganglia, many of which are located on a long chain that runs beside the spinal cord. These nerve structures work together, based on exterior or interior stimuli, to relay messages between the brain and muscle groups or glands. The bodily functions regulated by the autonomic nervous system include:

  • Heart rate
  • Digestion
  • Respiration
  • Salivation
  • Perspiration
  • Pupil dilation
  • Urination
  • Reproductive urges

Treating spine conditions

Because of its proximity to the spinal cord, the regulatory function of the autonomic nervous system can be affected by certain spinal conditions. If you are experiencing serious disruption of the autonomic nervous functions, seek immediate medical attention. However, in many situations, these conditions can be treated with conservative options like physical therapy and pain medication. Surgery is often seen as a last resort if symptoms don’t improve after weeks or months.

If you are considering surgery to treat a spinal condition after exhausting conservative treatments, contact Laser Spine Institute to learn about our minimally invasive outpatient surgery. Our procedures use a less than 1-inch incision, leading to a shorter recovery time^ with less risk of complication.

Reach out to us today for a no cost MRI review* to find out if you may be a candidate for one of our minimally invasive procedures.