What is the Function of the Spinal Cord?

Everyone knows the skeleton, with all its bones and joints, is the sturdy frame on which our bodies hang. The spine is one of the most important parts of this structure, but it is far more than just a mechanical device for keeping us upright.

The real purpose of the spinal cord is to act as a conduit between our brain and the rest of the body. Think of it as a telephone network sending messages back and forth to a central exchange.

If this collection of bone, grey and white matter and complex nerves is damaged, it can have a catastrophic impact on an individual.

Spinal cord function

What does the spinal cord do?

The spine is a delicate and intricate structure. It runs from the brain down to the coccyx in a series of flexible vertebrae stacked one on top of the other.

These are made of bone wrapped around the central grey and white matter with multitudes of nerve fibres branching off in 31 pairs to different parts of the body where they exert their control.

The spinal cord protects the internal wiring of our bodies which runs to and from the brain but it also provides important support for the body and enables us to bend and move at the same time. It’s truly a biological marvel.

What are the main functions of the spinal cord?

Spinal cord function can be split into three different areas:

  1. It is a highway of communication from the brain, sending messages to other parts of the body including instructing muscles that control movement.
  2. It also carries sensory information back to the brain. For example, when you touch something, nerves translate that sensation and transmits it to your central processing plant, the brain.
  3. It controls reflexive or involuntary actions such as the beat of your heart or adjusting your eyes to an external stimulus such as a bright light. It’s also involved in things like regulating our body temperature and digestion.

What is the function of the spinal cord in the nervous system?

The entire nervous system is a complex and fragile network of billions of nerve cells and connections running throughout the body. The spinal cord acts as a collection point for all these radiating connections, feeding them directly to the brain.

We distinguish between the central nervous system which comprises the brain and the spinal cord, both of which are protected by bony structures, and the peripheral nervous system which stretches out to all corners of the body.

The spinal cord is often split into different segments for diagnostic purposes. Each area has an ordered relationship with different parts of the body. For example, the thoracic nerves control performance in places like the chest, abdomen and upper back.

How can an injury alter the function of the spinal cord?

Man waiting on hospital bed following spinal cord injury diagnosis

Injury to the peripheral nervous system will generally cause highly localised problems such as numbness. The spinal cord, however, contains a much bigger number of nerves and cells collected together so damage to this area is likely to have more catastrophic consequences. Damage may include the spinal nerves being compressed, preventing communication or the entire cord being severed. That damage can be partial or complete.

One of the big issues that concerns spinal cord function is it has a range of highly specialised cells and structures. While many other parts of the body can begin to repair with little or no intervention, spinal injuries involve cells that can’t divide or regenerate. In other words, damage can often be immediate and permanent.

Damage to the spinal cord is able to affect the sensory, motor and reflex responses of the body. You may not be able to feel your legs or send messages from your brain to wiggle your toes. In very serious cases, there could be problems breathing or your heart rate because reflexive processes are interrupted.

The closer to the brain the spinal cord damage occurs, the more the entire body will be affected because a greater number of nerves are cut off from the brain.

Any major damage that occurs which impairs spinal cord function, of course, will have an immediate impact on the individual. Those who suffer a spinal cord injury will need to cope with enormous changes, including potentially undergoing delicate surgery to try and help repair the problem as well as making changes to their daily routines in order to cope with living with a disability.

Summary

The spinal cord underpins almost all we tend to take for granted about our bodies. It helps control everything from standing up and walking around to regulating our body temperature and digestion, all while keeping our hearts beating and our lungs inhaling and exhaling. It’s no wonder that damage to the spinal cord can have such a life-changing impact on the individual who has sustained the injury.