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Spinal Cord

The spinal cord (medulla) and the brain together make up the central nervous system (CNS). The spinal cord itself extends from the foramen magnum all the way to the first or second lumbar vertebra, being enclosed inside the vertebral column. It is also surrounded by layers of meninges and has a central canal running through it filled with cerebrospinal fluid.

In cross-section, the spinal cord has the characteristic butterfly shape, with the white matter being arranged into tracts at the periphery and the gray matter in the centre, around the central canal. During the embryological development, the spinal cord arises from the neural tube.

Key Facts
Borders Superior: foramen magnum
Inferior: L2
Internal structure Gray matter - inner layer; shaped like a butterfly where ventral horns contain bodies of motor neurons, and dorsal horns contain bodies of sensory neurons
White matter - outer layer; contains myelinated axons; divided in anterior, medial and posterior columns
Central canal - contains cerebrospinal fluid
External surface Anterior surface: anterior median fissure
Posterior surface: posterior median fissure
Anterolateral surface(s): anterolateral sulci (through which the anterior motor roots exit the spine)
Posterolateral surface(s): posterolateral sulci (thorugh which the posterior sensory roots enter the spine)
Segments 8 cervical -> form 8 pairs of cervical nerves
12 thoracic-> form 12 pairs of thoracic nerves
5 lumbar -> form 5 pairs of lumbar nerves
5 sacral -> form 5 pairs of sacral nerves
1 coccygeal segment
Adjacent structures Meninges - enclose the spinal cord and protect it - pia mater (innermost), arachnoid mater (middle), dura mater (outermost)
Meningeal spaces - subarachnoid space filled with cerebrospinal fluid (between pia and aracnoid mater), epidural space (between dura mater and vertebral canal)

This article will discuss the anatomy of the spinal cord.

Limits

The spinal cord is 40 to 45 cm long, weighs 30 grams and runs beginning from the foramen magnum all the way down to about the first or second lumbar vertebra securely enclosed in the vertebral column. Here it tapers into the so called conus medullaris.

Meninges

The spinal cord is surrounded by meninges: the innermost layer is the pia mater which closely adheres to the surface of the spinal cord. It is followed by the subarachnoid space filled with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the arachnoid mater and the dura mater. The subarachnoid space of the spinal cord is continuous with the same space of the brain. That's why the CSF constantly circulates through the subarachnoidal space of both brain and spinal cord.

Between the dura mater and the vertebral canal is the epidural (or peridural) space whose name might sound familliar since it is the place of apllying the epidural anesthesia during child birth.

Regions

The spinal cord may be subdivided into five regions: 

  • cervical
  • thoracic
  • lumbar
  • sacral
  • coccygeal

Two spindle-shaped intumescences are located between segments C4-T1 (cervical intumescence) and L1-S3 (lumbosacral intumescence). These areas are enlarged due to the increased number of neurons contributing to the innervation of the limbs.

Recommended video: Structure of spinal cord
Full structure of the spinal cord seen from a dorsal view.

Anatomical Structure & Features

External

A deep sulcus (anterior median fissure) runs on the ventral side of the spinal cord. Its dorsal counterpart is the rather flat posterior median sulcus. Laterally on both sides of the anterior median fissure the anterolateral sulci mark the exits of the anterior roots. The posterior roots enter the spinal cord through the posterolateral sulci on the dorsal side. The spinal ganglia which contain the perikarya (cell bodies) of the sensory neurons are located within the posterior roots.

Spinal cord - cranial view

In each segment the anterior and posterior roots unite and form a spinal nerve which then leaves the spinal cord through its respective intervertebral foramen. Altogether 31 to 33 spinal nerve pairs emerge from the spinal cord (8 cervical, 12 thoracic, 5 lumbar, 5 sacral and 1 to 3 coccygeal). The spinal nerves are only about 1 cm long before they branch further into the various peripheral nerves.

During the embryological development the vertebral column outgrows the spinal cord. Therefore the caudal nerve roots need to travel a longer distance until they reach their respective vertebral foramina compared to the cranial ones. These nerve roots descending below the spinal cord are referred to as cauda equine (“horse’s tail”).

Internal

The spinal cord consists of the gray matter and the white matter. The butterfly-shaped gray matter lies centrally and contains the perikarya of the neurons. It is surrounded by the white matter which mainly contains nerve fibers. As the axons are myelinated the white matter appears brighter than the gray matter.

The central canal containing cerebrospinal fluid runs through the center of the spinal cord surrounded by gray matter. The ventral “butterfly wing” represents the anterior horn with the motor neurons. The afferent nerve fibers of the posterior roots enter the dorsal “butterfly wing” known as the posterior horn. Between the anterior and posterior horn lies the intermediate column from where sympathetic neurons originate from the lateral horn (only in segments C8-L3).

The white matter comprises ascending and descending tracts of the spinal cord. Thus the spinal cord plays an essential role in the mediation of information between the brain and the periphery. Nonetheless exchange of information also occurs within the different spinal cord segments. In both halves of the spinal cord the white matter is grossly divided into three columns: anterior, lateral and posterior funiculi.

  • The dorsal column contains both the gracile and cuneate fasciculi which are responsible for the epicritic sensibility.
  • The ventral and lateral column comprise the anterior and lateral spinothalamic tracts for the protopathic sensibility and the anterior and lateral corticospinal tracts (pyramidal tract) to the motor neurons which control the motor functions.
  • The anterior and posterior spinocerebellar tracts run through the lateral column to the cerebellum and mediate proprioceptive information.

Summary

  • The spinal cord runs from the foramen magnum all the way to the first or second lumbar vertebra, being securely enclosed within the vertebral column. At the end it tapers off into the conus medullaris.
  • The spinal cord is covered by three meninges: the pia, arachnoid, and dura maters. 
  • There are five regions in total making up this structure: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, saccral, and coccygeal.
  • Externally, the spinal cord contains an anterior median fissure together with two anterolateral sulci on its ventral side and a corresponding posterior median sulcus and posterolateral sulci on its dorsal side. Anterior and posterior roots leave/enter the spinal cord respectivelly through those sulci.
  • Internally, the spinal cord contains a cerebrospinal fluid filled cavity known as the central canal. Surrounding this canal is the gray matter divided into anterior, lateral and posterior horns that contain perikarya of the neurons. Surrounding the gray matter is the white matter, which is divided into anterior, lateral and posterior funiculi that contain nerve fibers organized into ascending and descending tracts.

Spinal Cord - 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 852,397 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:

  • Benninghoff/Drenckhahn: Anatomie, Band 2, 16. Auflage (2004)
  • Kahle: Taschenatlas der Anatomie, Band 3, 9. Auflage (2005)
  • Martin: Concise Medical Dictionary, 8th edition (2010)

Author & Layout:

  • Christopher A. Becker
  • Achudhan Karunaharamoorthy

Illustrators:

  • First Illustration Gallery - Irina Münstermann, Rebecca Betts, Paul Kim
  • Second Illustration Gallery - Rebecca Betts, Paul Kim
  • Third Illustration Gallery - Rebecca Betts
  • Fourth Illustration Gallery - Paul Kim
  • Fifth Illustration Gallery - Rebecca Betts
  • Sixth Illustration Gallery - Rebecca Betts, Paul Kim
© 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.

Related Atlas Images

Spinal cord in situ

Structure of the spinal cord

Spinal membranes and nerve roots

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