The spinal cord is a long, tube-like band of tissue. It connects your brain to your lower back. Your spinal cord carries nerve signals from your brain to your body and vice versa. These nerve signals help you feel sensations and move your body. Any damage to your spinal cord can affect your movement or function.
Your spinal cord is a cylindrical structure that runs through the center of your spine, from your brainstem to your low back. It's a delicate structure that contains nerve bundles and cells that carry messages from your brain to the rest of your body. Your spinal cord is one of the main parts of your nervous system.
People often refer to the spinal cord and vertebral column together as the spine. Your spinal cord is a band of tissues, nerves and cells. A protective layer of bone called the vertebral column covers and protects your spinal cord.
The bones in the vertebral column are called vertebrae (plural of one spine bone, a vertebra). Your vertebrae stack on top of each other, from your pelvic bones to your skull. Between each pair of vertebrae, you have a spinal disk. Disks have a tough outer shell and a gel-like interior. They act as shock absorption and cushion for your vertebrae and spinal cord.
Your spinal cord’s main purpose is to carry nerve signals throughout your body. These nerve messages have three crucial functions. They:
Your spinal cord has three main parts:
Like your brain, layers of tissue called meninges cover the spinal cord. These protective tissues include:
The epidural space is between the dura mater and arachnoid mater. This space is where healthcare providers insert anesthesia during childbirth, known as epidurals.
The subarachnoid space is between the arachnoid mater and the pia mater. Here, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) provides extra cushioning and protection for your spinal cord.
Sometimes, providers need to insert a needle into the subarachnoid space to test CSF for certain infections. This procedure is called a spinal tap. Both the epidural and arachnoid spaces provide extra shock absorption for your spine.
You have 31 pairs of nerves and nerve roots in your spinal cord. These include:
You also have a nerve bundle at the base of your spinal cord called the cauda equina. The cauda equina comes from the Latin words for “horse’s tail,” because early anatomists thought the nerve collection looked like a horse tail. The cauda equina includes nerves that provide sensation to your lower body.
Your spinal nerves send electrical signals between your brain, spinal cord and the rest of your body. These electrical nerve signals help you feel sensations (sensory nerve) and move your body (motor nerves).
The spinal cord begins at the bottom part of your brainstem, called the medulla oblongata. At your lower back, your spinal cord forms a cone shape called the conus medullaris.
In most adults, your spinal cord is about 18 inches (45 centimeters) long.
Many disorders or injuries can affect your spinal cord. Spinal cord injuries and disorders are serious. Any injury to your spinal cord can cause severe symptoms in the parts of your body below the injury.
Severe symptoms that can result from spinal cord damage can include loss of bladder control or paralysis. For some disorders, getting treatment quickly can lower your risk of long-term or permanent symptoms.
Common conditions that can affect your spinal cord include:
You can keep your spinal cord, vertebral column and entire back healthier by practicing healthy habits. You may:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Your spinal cord is the long, cylindrical structure that connects your brain and lower back. It contains tissues, fluids and nerve cells. A bony column of vertebrae surrounds and protects your spinal cord. Your spinal cord helps carry electrical nerve signals throughout your body. These nerve signals help you feel sensations and move your muscles. Any damage or injury to your spinal cord can affect your movement and function.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/07/2021.
Learn more about our editorial process.