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Structures of the Spinal Cord

Originally published on November 10, 2009
Most recently updated on April 10, 2013

We discussed the spinal cord above (under “Brain and Nervous System Basics”) and explained that it extends from the brain and has the same layers (meninges) and CSF surrounding it (see Figure 4). The spinal cord makes up two thirds of the CNS and is a pathway for nerve impulses. Sensory information (such as touch, temperature, pressure, and pain) is carried to the brain. Commands that relate to movement (motor function) and reflexes travel from the brain to all parts of the body.

The spinal cord is protected by the flexible, bony vertebral column, also called the spinal column. You can feel these separate, hollow bones (called vertebrae) along your back and neck. For identification purposes, these bones are grouped into sections, called levels, and are numbered (see Figure 5). Therefore, a spinal cord tumor might be described as occurring at either the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, or coccygeal level (for example, a tumor at C-3 or L-1.) The 31 pairs of spinal nerves are attached to the cord by roots and branch out to different parts of the body through spaces in the vertebrae.


Figure 4.
Cross-section of the spine.


Figure 5.
Side view of the spine showing vertebral levels.

Tumors can grow inside (intrinsic tumors) or outside (extrinsic tumors) of the spinal cord and put pressure on the spinal cord. Signs and symptoms result from compression because there is very little space for a tumor to grow. Spinal cord tumors produce two effects. Local (or focal) effects (such as pain, weakness, and sensory impairment) are due to growth in the immediate area, involving bone and spinal roots. Distal (or remote) effects are related to interference with the relay system of nerve impulses. Weakness, loss of feeling, or loss of muscle control (paralysis or paresis) below the vertebral level of damage can occur.
 
A part of the outer bony wall in the spinal cord called the lamina may have to be removed (and replaced) during surgery to reach the tumor. If this is done, a child may occasionally need to be treated by an orthopedic specialist if curvature of the spine develops.

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