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Sacral Plexus - want to learn more about it?

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Sacral Plexus

The sacral plexus is known as the plexus of the lower limb. It is comprised of lumbosacral outflow from nerve roots L4 to S4. More specifically, it is formed from nerve fibers from the anterior and posterior divisions of the anterior rami of spinal nerves L4 and L5, which cross the arcuate line anteroinferiorly to meet similar fibers from S1 – S4 that also travel anteroinferiorly, across the anterior surface of piriformis.

Branches of the triangular shaped plexus pass through the greater sciatic foramen and continue inferiorly to supply the muscles of the gluteal region along with the entire lower limb. This article will evaluate the branches of the sacral plexus and their relationship to other anatomical structures.

Study Tips/Mnemonics
Innervation Superior gluteal nerve (tensor fasciae latae, glutei medius and minimus), inferior gluteal nerve (gluteus maximus), perforating cutaneous nerves (skin over inferomedial part of buttock), pelvic splanchnic nerves (bladder, large intestine), sciatic nerve (hamstrings, adductor magnus), posterior femoral cutaneous nerve (skin from the buttock to the middle of the calf muscles), pudendal nerve (anus, sphincters, parts of the external genitalia), perineal nerve (part of levator ani)
Nerve Roots All nerves arise from three nerve roots except the sciatic, which arises from five
Six 'P's' Nerve to Piriformis, posterior femoral cutaneous nerve, perforating cutaneous nerve, pudendal nerve, perineal branch of the fourth sacral nerve, Pelvic splanchnic nerves
Major Branches Superior gluteal nerve, inferior gluteal nerve, posterior cutaneous nerve of thigh, pudendal nerve, sciantic nerve (SIPPS)

Branches & Relations

Overview of sacral plexus - anterior view

Superior Gluteal Nerve

The superior gluteal nerve is formed from the posterior divisions of the anterior rami of L4, L5, and S1 spinal nerves. It has the responsibility of innervating tensor fasciae latae, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. It gains access to the gluteal region by coursing over the superior border of piriformis through the greater sciatic foramen. Afterwards, it travels under the cover of gluteus medius laterally as it innervates the aforementioned muscles.

Superior gluteal nerve - dorsal view

Inferior Gluteal Nerve

The inferior gluteal nerve receives contributions from the posterior divisions of the anterior rami of the L5, S1, and S2 spinal nerves. It takes a similar route through the greater sciatic foramen, but inferior to piriformis. It travels superficial to the sciatic nerve and recurs to innervate gluteus maximus.

Inferior gluteal nerve - dorsal view

Nerve to Piriformis

The third branch to be formed purely from posterior divisions of anterior rami, is the 'nerve to piriformis'. It specifically receives contributions from the posterior divisions of the anterior rami of the S1 and S2 spinal nerves. These nerve fibers have a short course posteriorly to innervate the muscle.

Perforating Cutaneous Nerve

The perforating cutaneous nerve is also formed of purely posterior divisions, this time originating from the fibers of the anterior rami of spinal nerves S2 and S3. It provides cutaneous supply to a small area of skin on the inferior medial part of the buttock after passing through the greater sciatic foramen (superior to the gemelli and obturator internus) and piercing the sacrotuberous ligament and gluteus maximus.

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Pelvic Splanchnic Nerves

Pelvic splanchnic nerves (originatin from the anterior rami of spinal nerves S2, S3 and S4) provide both parasympathetic and motor innervation to muscles of the pelvic cavity. The parasympathetic outflow joins the inferior hypogastric (pelvic) plexus. Its motor component supplies the bladder and the distal part of the large intestines (from the left colic flexure, onwards). It also causes clitoral (or penile) erection.

Sciatic Nerve

As the largest branch of the sacral plexus, the sciatic nerve is formed from both anterior and posterior divisions of the anterior rami of spinal nerves L4 to S3. The nerve can be functionally divided into two divisions:

- a common fibular (peroneal) component that is formed by the posterior divisions of the anterior ramio of spinal nerves L4 -S2, and a 

- tibial component that is formed by anterior divisions of the anterior rami of spinal nerves L4 – S3.

Sciatic nerve - ventral view

The nerve exits the pelvic cavity by way of the greater sciatic foramen. In the gluteal region, it travels deep to gluteus maximus and the inferior gluteal artery. It courses over the posterior surface of the gemelli, piriformis, quadratus femoris and the ischial fibers of adductor femoris. The sciatic nerve begins branching at about the midpoint between the ischial tuberosity and the greater trochanter to supply the hamstring muscles and the ischial fibers of adductor magnus.

At the apex of the popliteal fossa, the nerve typically divides into the common peroneal and tibial nerves proper. These two nerves are responsible for innervating the muscles and joints of the leg and foot. It is noteworthy that the sciatic nerve receives a vasa nervorum (small artery providing arterial blood to peripheral nerves) from the inferior gluteal artery.

Nerve to Quadratus Femoris

The nerve to quadratus femoris also has the responsibility of supplying the inferior gemellus. It takes fibers from the anterior divisions of the anterior rami of the L4, L5 and S1 spinal nerves, and travels inferiorly, under cover of the sciatic nerve, towards quadratus femoris. On its way, the nerve also provides a articular branch to the hip joint.

Nerve to Obturator Internus

Similarly, the nerve to obturator internus also innervates the superior gemellus. Its nerve roots come from the anterior divisions of the anterior rami of spinal nerves L5, S1 and S2. To gain access to obturator internus, the nerve travels inferior to piriformis and courses around the ischial spine.

Posterior Cutaneous Nerve of the Thigh

The posterior femoral cutaneous nerve (a.k.a. posterior femoral cutaneous nerve) is the only other branch of the sacral plexus that receives fibers from both anterior and posterior divisions of anterior rami. 

Its fibers originate from:

- the posterior divisions of the anterior rami of spinal nerves S1 and S2, in addition to

- the anterior divisions of the anterior rami of spinal nerves S2 and S3.

The nerve has a anteroposterior and superoinferior range of cutaneous and fascial supply between the anterior and posterior axillary lines from the buttock to the middle of the calf muscles.

The nerve enters the posterior thigh by way of the greater sciatic notch, inferior to piriformis, deep to the inferior gluteal artery and superior to the gemelli, obturator internus and the sciatic nerve.

The posterior femoral cutaneous nerve also gives rise to gluteal branches that give cutaneous supply to the contour of the buttock and a long fibular/peroneal branch that innervates two thirds of the posterolateral aspect of the scrotum (or labium majus).

Pudendal Nerve

The anterior divisions of the anterir rami of spinal nerve S2, S3 and S4 merge on the anterior surface of piriformis (posterior to the inferior gluteal artery) to form the pudendal nerve. The pudendal nerve then travels inferiorly around the sacrospinous ligament to enter the pudendal canal with the pudendal vessels.

It gives rise to:

  • the inferior rectal nerve that innervates the external anal sphincter, anal canal and perianal skin,
  • the perineal nerve that gives cutaneous supply to part of the posterior scrotum (vulva), mucus membrane of the urethra and vagina, and motor innervation to the muscles of the perineum
  • the dorsal nerve of the clitoris/penis that gives cutaneous innervation to this region.

Nerve to Levator Ani & Ischiococcygeus Muscles

The last two branches of the sacral plexus are the nerve to levator ani and the ischiococcygeus muscle. It provides motor innervation to the pelvic part of the muscles for which they are named.

Perineal branch of S4

The perineal branch of S4 courses via the coccygeus and iliococcygeus mucles and gives cutaneous supply to the region above the ischioanal fossa. It may also provide motor innervation to the deep part of the external anal sphincter. 

Mnemonics

Although there are only seven major branches of the sacral plexus to remember, keeping the nerve roots in order can be tricky. Here are a few tips that can assist in keeping things straight:

  • All the nerves of the sacral plexus arise from three nerve roots EXCEPT the sciatic nerve, which has five nerve roots.
  • The superior gluteal nerve and the nerve to quadratus femoris/inferior gemellus share the same nerve roots (L4, L5 and S1).
  • Similarly, the inferior gluteal nerve and the nerve to obturator internus/superior gemellus also share the same nerve roots (L5, S1 and S2).
  • There are six  P’s:
    • Nerve to Piriformis
    • Posterior femoral cutaneous nerve
    • Perforating cutaneous nerve
    • Pudendal nerve
    • Perineal branch of the 4th sacral nerve
    • Pelvic sphlancnic nerves
  • Finally, the major branches can be remembered as SIPPS:
    • S – Superior gluteal nerve (nerve to quadratus femoris/inferior gemellus may be associated here since they share nerve roots)
    • I – Inferior gluteal nerve (nerve to obturator internus/superior gemellus may be associated here since they share nerve roots)
    • P – Posterior cutaneous nerve of thigh
    • P – Pudendal nerve
    • S – Sciatic nerve

Sacral Plexus - want to learn more about it?

Our engaging videos, interactive quizzes, in-depth articles and HD atlas are here to get you top results faster.

Sign up for your free Kenhub account today and join over 1,128,267 successful anatomy students.

“I would honestly say that Kenhub cut my study time in half.” – Read more. Kim Bengochea Kim Bengochea, Regis University, Denver

Show references

References:

  • Hansen, J. and Netter, F. (2014). Netter's Atlas of Human Anatomy. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Penn.: Sanders Elsevier, pp.486, 489.
  • Sinnatamby, C. and Last, R. (2011). Last's Anatomy. 12th ed. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier, pp.326-327.

Author and Layout:

  • Lorenzo A. Crumbie
  • Catarina Chaves

Illustrators:         

  • Overview of sacral plexus - anterior view - Begoña Rodriguez
  • Superior gluteal nerve - dorsal view - Liene Znotina
  • Inferior gluteal nerve - dorsal view - Liene Znotina
  • Sciatic nerve - ventral view - Begoña Rodriguez
© Unless stated otherwise, all content, including illustrations are exclusive property of Kenhub GmbH, and are protected by German and international copyright laws. All rights reserved.

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