The spinal cord — overview and related conditions

The spinal cord is the body’s major nerve tract, which together with the brain, make up the central nervous system. About 18 inches long, it extends lengthwise from the base of the brain to the lower back. Essentially, the spinal cord is the main communication highway of the body, carrying sensory and motor information to and from the brain.

The spinal cord is comprised of nerve cells that make up nerve fibers. Some of these nerve fibers send sensory impulses to the brain, while others carry motor, or movement, impulses from the brain to other parts of the body. Because it plays such a critical role in the basic functioning of the body, the spinal cord is very vulnerable to injury or natural deterioration that can occur in this part of the body.

Overview of spinal anatomy

The spinal cord runs through the stacked vertebrae, or bones, that make up the spinal column. In addition to being protected by the vertebrae, the spinal cord is surrounded by:

  • Three layers of tissue collectively called spinal meninges
  • The dura mater, a tough protective outer layer
  • Cerebrospinal fluid
  • The epidural space
  • Blood vessels

In order to transmit information to the rest of the body, the spinal cord branches off into nerve roots that exit the spinal canal in pairs from top to bottom:

  • A dorsal nerve root, controlling sensation
  • A ventral nerve root, controlling movement

Nerve roots exit the spinal canal through space between vertebrae called the intervertebral foramina, also known as the neural foramina or foramen.

How nerve compression occurs

In addition to protecting the spinal cord, the human spine is responsible for supporting the upper body while still being flexible enough for basic movement. To do this, the vertebrae are connected by discs and joints that allow the spine to bend and twist, but these parts are prone to wear out with age.

When any of the nerve roots or the spinal cord are compressed or pinched by conditions like a bulging disc, herniated disc or bone spurs then pain and other symptoms may result. Pain can be experienced locally to the pinched nerve, and it can also radiate to other parts of the body, such as the shoulders, arms, buttocks, legs or feet. Other common symptoms are numbness, tingling, weakness and muscle cramps.

Treatments to relieve pressure from a pinched nerve in the spinal column depend on the severity of the injury or damage. These treatments include:

  • Rest
  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Epidural steroid injections
  • Surgery

If you have been diagnosed with nerve compression caused by displaced spinal discs or other tissue that is the source of debilitating symptoms, contact Laser Spine Institute. Our minimally invasive outpatient surgery is an alternative to traditional open back procedures that offer a shorter recovery period^ and fewer complications.

Contact us for your no-cost MRI review* to determine if you may be a candidate for one of our procedures.