Spinal canal overview

The spinal canal is a long opening in the center of the spinal column which the spinal cord runs through. The canal begins at the base of the skull and ends at the lower back, providing a pathway for the central nervous system to send messages from the brain to the rest of the body and back again.

The spinal canal is vulnerable to narrowing, called canal stenosis, due to degenerative conditions that displace other parts of the anatomy and put pressure on the spinal cord. Learning about the structure of the spinal canal can help you better understand your condition if debilitating neck or back pain is interfering with your ability to live a healthy, active life.

The spinal canal — formation and function

The spinal canal is formed by openings within the vertebrae called foramina. Along the length of the canal is the epidural space which surrounds the dura mater — a protective membrane that encloses the spinal cord. The blood vessels that supply the spine with blood also run through the spinal canal.

The most important function of the spinal canal is to serve as a conduit for spinal nerves. There are 31 pairs of spinal nerves, each branching off the spinal cord in order to send sensory impulses to different parts of the body. The groupings of nerve roots branching off the spinal cord are named for the region of the spine in which they are found: cervical (upper), thoracic (middle) lumbar (lower) and sacral which connects the bottom of the spine to the pelvis.

Each set of nerve roots delivers messages to a different area, muscle group or organ. Different nerve groups within the spinal canal are responsible for sensory and motor control in specific areas:

  • Cervical nerves go to the head, neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, hands and diaphragm.
  • Thoracic nerves go to the hands, chest, back and abdomen.
  • Lumbar nerves go to the legs and feet.
  • Sacral nerves go to the legs, bowel, bladder and reproductive function.

Treatment for issues affecting the spinal canal

Injury and age-related degeneration of the spinal anatomy — such as degenerative disc disease and arthritis — can cause canal stenosis and painful nerve compression. This can lead to both local and radiating symptoms along the length of the affected nerve. Most doctors will usually recommend a course of conservative treatment options like pain medication and physical therapy to treat these symptoms before considering surgery.

For those who are considering surgery but are concerned about some of the risks and difficulties that can come with a traditional open spine procedure, Laser Spine Institute offers an alternative. Our board-certified surgeons+ treat spine conditions with a small, less than 1-inch incision that makes it possible for spine surgery to be performed on an outpatient basis.

Contact Laser Spine Institute to for a no-cost review of your MRI or CT scan* to see if you may be a candidate for our minimally invasive spine surgery.