Peripheral nervous system

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]

The peripheral nervous system (PNS) can be divided into the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The PNS is not protected by bone, leaving it exposed to injury, unlike the central nervous system, which is made of the brain and spinal cord, to serve the limbs and organs. [1]

General classification

The peripheral nervous system can be classified either by direction of neurons or by function.

By direction

There are three types of directions of the neurons:

By function

By function, the peripheral nervous system is divided into the somatic nervous system , autonomic nervous system and the enteric nervous system. The somatic nervous system is responsible for coordinating the body movements, and also for receiving external stimuli. It is the system that regulates activities that are under conscious control. The autonomic nervous system is then split into the sympathetic division, parasympathetic division, and enteric division. The sympathetic nervous system responds to impending danger or stress, and is responsible for the increase of one's heartbeat and blood pressure, among other physiological changes, along with the sense of excitement one feels due to the increase of adrenaline in the system. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is evident when a person is resting and feels relaxed, and is responsible for such things as the constriction of the pupil, the slowing of the heart, the dilation of the blood vessels, and the stimulation of the digestive and genitourinary systems. The role of the enteric nervous system is to manage every aspect of digestion, from the esophagus to the stomach, small intestine and colon.

Naming of specific nerves

The Human Nervous System. Blue is PNS while red is CNS.

Ten out of the twelve cranial nerves originate from the brainstem, and mainly control the functions of the anatomic structures of the head with some exceptions. The nuclei of cranial nerves I and II lie in the forebrain and thalamus, respectively, and are thus not considered to be true cranial nerves. CN X (10) receives visceral sensory information from the thorax and abdomen, and CN XI (11) is responsible for innervating the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles, neither of which is exclusively in the head.

Spinal nerves take their origins from the spinal cord. They control the functions of the rest of the body. In humans, there are 31 pairs of spinal nerves: 8 cervical, 12 thoracic, 5 lumbar, 5 sacral and 1 coccygeal. The naming convention for spinal nerves is to name it after the vertebra immediately above it. Thus the fourth thoracic nerve originates just below the fourth thoracic vertebra. This convention breaks down in the cervical spine. The first spinal nerve originates above the first cervical vertebra and is called C1. This continues down to the last cervical spinal nerve, C8. There are only 7 cervical vertebrae and 8 cervical spinal nerves.

Cervical spinal nerves (C1-C4)

The first 4 cervical spinal nerves, C1 through C4, split and recombine to produce a variety of nerves that subserve the neck and back of head.

Spinal nerve C1 is called the suboccipital nerve which provides motor innervation to muscles at the base of the skull. C2 and C3 form many of the nerves of the neck, providing both sensory and motor control. These include the greater occipital nerve which provides sensation to the back of the head, the lesser occipital nerve which provides sensation to the area behind the ears, the greater auricular nerve and the lesser auricular nerve. See occipital neuralgia. The phrenic nerve arises from nerve roots C3, C4 and C5. It innervates the diaphragm, enabling breathing. If the spinal cord is transected above C3, then spontaneous breathing is not possible. See myelopathy

Brachial plexus (C5-T1)

The last four cervical spinal nerves, C5 through C8, and the first thoracic spinal nerve, T1,combine to form the brachial plexus, or plexus brachialis, a tangled array of nerves, splitting, combining and recombining, to form the nerves that subserve the arm and upper back. Although the brachial plexus may appear tangled, it is highly organized and predictable, with little variation between people. See brachial plexus injuries

Before forming three cords

The first nerve off the brachial plexus, or plexus brachialis, is the dorsal scapular nerve, arising from C5 nerve root, and innervating the rhomboids and the levator scapulae muscles. The long thoracic nerve arises from C5, C6 and C7 to innervate the serratus anterior. The brachial plexus first forms three trunks, the superior trunk, composed of the C5 and C6 nerve roots, the middle trunk, made of the C7 nerve root, and the inferior trunk, made of the C8 and T1 nerve roots. The suprascapular nerve is an early branch of the superior trunk. It innervates the suprascapular and infrascapular muscles, part of the rotator cuff. The trunks reshuffle as they traverse towards the arm into cords. There are three of them. The lateral cord is made up of fibers from the superior and middle trunk. The posterior cord is made up of fibers from all three trunks. The medial cord is composed of fibers solely from the medial trunk.

Lateral cord

The lateral cord gives rise to the following nerves:

Posterior cord

The posterior cord gives rise to the following nerves:

Medial cord

The medial cord gives rise to the following nerves:


The main neurotransmitters of the peripheral nervous system are acetylcholine and noradrenaline. However, there are several other neurotransmitters as well, jointly labeled Non-noradrenergic, non-cholinergic (NANC) transmitters. Examples of such transmitters include non-peptides: ATP, GABA, dopamine, NO, and peptides: neuropeptide Y, VIP, GnRH, Substance P and CGRP. [2]


  1. Maton, Anthea (1993). Human Biology and Health. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, USA: Prentice Hall. pp. 132–144. ISBN 0-13-981176-1. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
  2. Pharmacology, (Rang, Dale, Ritter & Moore, ISBN 0443071454, 5:th ed., Churchill Livingstone 2003). Page 132.

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