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Spinal Cord Function | What Does Your Spinal Cord do?

You have probably heard the words spinal cord before, but what is it? You've got one! Don't worry, it's nothing weird. We all have one and it controls our entire body.

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Everything your body does and feels is because of nerves that run everywhere in your body - kind of like all the electrical wires and circuits that run through your house, but even more of them!

All these nerves are bundled in a nice little package that runs through the vertebrae of your back. This bundle of nerves is your spinal cord.

But what does the spinal cord and all of the nerves do for you?

Read on to learn what a spinal cord is, what it does for you, and what happens if it is damaged.

Spinal cord in the human body

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How Does a Spinal Cord Work?

Sensations you feel and movements you make are controlled by nerves running throughout your body. All of these nerves originate from the base of your brain in a thick bundle or cord and run downward within your backbone (vertebrae/vertebral column/spine).

The big bundle of nerves that runs from the base of your brain down to your tailbone is your spinal cord.

These nerves travel down your back within the spinal canal of your protective vertebrae and nerves shoot out between each vertebra. These nerves continue to branch out into smaller nerves and travel everywhere in your body.

Spinal nerves tell your brain about every sensation you feel and control every movement you make. They carry messages from your brain to your body, telling your body what to do and they carry messages from your body to your brain, telling it about things like pain, temperature, and touch.

They also direct your body to maintain all the things we don't have to think about doing like breathing, temperature and blood pressure regulation, sensing where your body is, peeing, and pooping.

Spinal Nerves

The vertebrae that make up the spine and the spinal nerves are divided into five sections:

  • cervical
  • thoracic
  • lumbar
  • sacral
  • coccygeal

Spinal nerves branch out from the spinal cord at each vertebra and are similarly labeled cervical, thoracic, lumbar, or sacral.

Spinal cord and spinal nerves power your body and give it the ability to feel, move, and function properly inside. Each spinal nerve has a specific job and function.

The spinal cord allows your body to move and feels so as you can imagine, something with this much power is critical to normal body function. Damage to the spinal cord can have dramatic effects on your body's ability to move, feel, and function.

What Spinal Nerves Do

Nerves branching from the:

  • cervical section control the head, neck, diaphragm, breathing, arm, and hand function
  • thoracic section control chest and abdomen muscles
  • lumbar section control leg muscles
  • sacral section control sexual, bladder, and bowel function, and legs
Spinal Nerves

What Happens if a Spinal Cord is Injured?

The spinal cord can become injured due to a traumatic or non-traumatic event.

Pressure, a bleed, contusion (bruise) or laceration can cause serious damage to the spinal cord. The spinal cord can even be completely severed in a traumatic event.

When nerves within the spinal cord are damaged or severed, messages are inhibited or prevented from traveling between your brain and body. Messages trying to get from your brain to your body and your body to your brain malfunction.

Depending on where the injury is on the spinal cord, more or less of the body will be affected.

If a spinal cord injury occurs above the first thoracic vertebrae the injury results in quadriplegia or tetraplegia, meaning it affects all four limbs (arms and legs). 

If the injury occurs below the first thoracic vertebrae the injury results in paraplegia meaning it affects the legs and not arms.

Types of Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injuries can happen for many different reasons and result in a multitude of different injuries. The medical field groups spinal cord injuries into different categories that encompass the type of injury, level, and severity.

Rather than briefly touching on those categories here, you can get more in-depth information in my previous post: Types of Spinal Cord Injury | Levels and Classifications.

How Will a Spinal Cord Injury Affect Me?

The effects of a spinal cord injury will differ depending on where your spinal cord is damaged. Injuries farther up on the spinal cord will affect a greater part of your body.

Function and sensation will be affected "below the level of injury". This means any bodily functions listed below where your spinal cord was injured will be affected and will function abnormally or not at all.

An injury at the fifth cervical vertebrae (C5) will have normal function of the head, neck, and front upper chest and back but will start having impairments from areas innervated with nerves branching from the spinal cord at C5.

The injury works kind of like a roadblock. Nerves exiting and entering the spinal cord from C5 on down will be impaired or completely inhibited.

Spinal dermatomes

Can a Spinal Cord Heal?

A spinal cord does not heal like the rest of our body. If we get a bruise on our arm or a cut on our leg, time will heal those injuries. Bruises will go away and cuts mend. This is not the case in the spinal cord.

Unlike the rest of our body, the spinal cord does not have the ability to heal itself when injured. Things that happen in the body around the site of a spinal cord injury end up making it immensely difficult and in most cases impossible for the body to heal the injured cord.

Unfortunately, at this point in time injuries to the spinal cord are permanent.

My Prognosis

Back in 2008 at the time of my accident doctors were not "hope-giving". I was basically told that I would not improve much over time and nearly certainly not improve past one year post-injury.

I haven't spoken to a doctor about the likelihood of my regaining use of my hands, bladder, bowel, legs in years. But I pray that they are being more optimistic and hopeful for the newly injured.

I know many people in the spinal cord injury community, including myself, will continue to make great gains long past one year post-injury.

While doctors certainly know a lot, the spinal cord is still a huge mystery.

So I say ...

Never, never, never give up! Keep hope, work hard, and be ready when a curative therapy comes to be!

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The Future for Those with a Spinal Cord Injury

Although there is no cure or curative therapy for spinal cord injury right now, many researchers, scientists, and doctors work diligently towards this goal everyday. Some devote their entire professional life to finding a cure for spinal cord injury.

Research is progressing rapidly and there are some great advancements happening!

To keep up-to-date on legitimate spinal cord injury clinical trials visit https://clinicaltrials.gov

  • Todd Matthews says:

    The spinal cord is one of the most important parts of the human anatomy, serving as a hub to all our movement, as you mentioned. Injuries are devastating, and have thrown curveballs at those affected, have ended promising careers both in sports where injury is possible all the time, or just in an accident. 

    I hope that someday we’ll get to the point to where we can find a way for damaged spinal cords to heal after an injury. With modern advances in research, maybe the day isn’t far off, and that would be an amazing find. 

    • Lynne says:

      Hi Todd, Thank you so much for reading my post. The spinal cord is critical to our movement and ability to feel. I too pray that research will get us to ‘cure’ soon!

  • Brian says:

    Hi Lynne, 

    This is a great post! I found the section on what spinal nerves do particularly interesting. I always knew different parts of the spinal cord work certain parts of the body. However, I never knew what controlled what. 

    I also find it fascinating how the human body is so resilient, yet the spinal cord is so sensitive to damage. I guess it’s the equivalent of what a motherboard is to a computer. 

    Thanks, 

    Brian

    • Lynne says:

      Hi Brian, Yes I guess you could be equated to a motherboard. Nice analogy 🙂 Thank you so much for stopping by and hope you come back again!

  • JannatulN says:

    Hi,

     This is a great informative and educative article with lots of information about our Spinal  cord  activity. After reading your article, I have understood the concept of spinal cord injury,Spinal Nerves.Spinal cord and spinal nerves power your body and give it the ability to feel, move, and function properly inside. Each spinal nerve has a specific job and function. Thank you for writing this significant content.

    • Lynne says:

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my post. So glad you found it educational 🙂 Please Stop Back Again.

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