What You Need To Know About How The Spinal Cord Functions

February 23, 2017 by: Dr. Luis M. Tumialàn
​​​​​​​Spine Surgery

What You Need To Know About How The Spinal Cord Functions

The spine is an extremely complex structure that comprises of individual vertebrae that are connected by ligaments and muscles, which house the spinal cord – the single most important structure between the body and brain. In order to understand the effects of spinal injuries properly, it is necessary to understand how the spinal cord functions.

What is the spinal cord?

Around 40cm long and about as wide as an adult thumb, the spinal cord runs from the base of the brain right down to a canal in your backbone. It is made up of dozens of nerves and works with our brain to form part of the central nervous system (CNS).

What is the central nervous system?

The central nervous system is responsible for the majority of our bodily functions and movements. What makes it different to other functions in the body is that the CNS controls many different things at the same time. This includes voluntary movements such as standing, walking and talking, and involuntary actions like blinking and breathing. It also controls our brain function, affecting the way we think, process our thoughts and regulate our emotions.

How does the spinal cord function?

The spinal cord is essentially an information highway running between your brain and body. Dozens of messages are passed up and down this highway every second as your brain interprets the world around you using your five senses, and then communicates movements and impulses back to your body. For example, if you were to stand on something sharp, your nerves in your foot would transmit a message to your brain via your spinal cord than you should retract your foot. The CNS is so sophisticated that all of this happens in just a microsecond and often without any conscious thought.

What happens if the spinal cord becomes injured?

The spinal cord is well protected behind the vertebrae that make up the spinal column. It has the additional support of being surrounded by three tough envelopes called meninges, which have clear, shock-absorbing fluid between them to help protect your spinal cord from impacts.

That said, spinal injuries that penetrate through to the spinal cord do still occur. When the spinal cord becomes damaged, it interrupts the flow of information between the brain and the body. This is one of the reasons why spinal cord injuries often cause some degree of paralysis, the extent of which will depend on the location of the injury and the prognosis for recovery.

Effects of a spinal cord injury

Because the central nervous system controls so many bodily functions, the effect of a spinal cord injury can be extremely variable and there are an extensive number of ways in which the patient could be impacted. These include:

-         A spectrum of pain, from chronic aches to acute discomfort.

-         Full or partial paralysis that can be temporary or permanent.

-         Loss of sensation in various parts of the body.

-         Loss of bladder/bowel control.

-         Exaggerated reflex action and spasms.

-         Changes in sexual sensitivity, function and libido.

-         In the cases of damage to the spinal cord in the higher vertebrae, difficulty regulating breathing or breathing independently.

Can the spinal cord heal?

The human body has an amazing capacity for self-regeneration and as such as are able to heal from many injuries. However, brain and spinal cord cells are so specialized that they are unable to divide and replicate. This means that recovery from a spinal cord injury is extremely difficult, and in many cases the damage is irreparable.

Why do the consequences of spinal cord injuries vary so much from person to person?

It is important to understand that the spinal cord is arranged in layers of circuitry, and that when the cord becomes damaged, it is unlikely that all circuits are affected. This means that even when there is complex damage and significant impacts in some areas, other parts of the basic circuitry to control movement and process information will remain intact.

Rehabilitation plays a huge role in achieving the best possible outcome from a spinal cord injury, with patients who are committed to fulfilling their rehabilitation programs usually regaining the most independence and quality of life.

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If you are struggling with pain, weakness, loss of function, or other symptoms of spinal complications, contact Dr. Tumialán's office today.

Spine-Talks Featuring Dr. Tumialán