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Anatomy Of The Sympathetic Nervous System

Unlock the secrets of the human body's intricate network with an in-depth exploration of the fascinating structure and functions of the Sympathetic Nervous System.

USMLE Guide: Anatomy of the Sympathetic Nervous System


The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is a major component of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) responsible for the body's "fight or flight" response. Understanding the anatomy of the SNS is crucial for medical students preparing for the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). This guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the anatomy of the sympathetic nervous system, focusing on key concepts and structures that are frequently tested on the USMLE.

Anatomy of the Sympathetic Nervous System

  1. Overview of the Autonomic Nervous System:

    • The autonomic nervous system consists of two main divisions: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
    • The sympathetic nervous system primarily prepares the body for intense physical activity or stressful situations, commonly referred to as the "fight or flight" response.
    • The sympathetic nervous system functions in coordination with the parasympathetic nervous system to maintain homeostasis.
  2. Origin and Distribution of Sympathetic Fibers:

    • Sympathetic preganglionic fibers originate from the intermediolateral cell column (IML) of the thoracolumbar spinal cord (T1-L2/L3).
    • These preganglionic fibers exit the spinal cord through the anterior roots and form white rami communicantes to reach the sympathetic ganglia.
    • The sympathetic ganglia are located in two main chains, the sympathetic trunk (paravertebral ganglia) and the prevertebral ganglia.
    • The sympathetic trunk runs parallel to the spinal cord and contains ganglia at each vertebral level, while the prevertebral ganglia are located anteriorly in the abdominal and pelvic regions.
    • Postganglionic fibers arise from the sympathetic ganglia and travel to their target organs.
  3. Sympathetic Trunk (Paravertebral Ganglia):

    • The sympathetic trunk consists of a series of ganglia interconnected by nerve fibers.
    • It extends bilaterally along the entire length of the vertebral column.
    • Each spinal level gives rise to a pair of sympathetic ganglia, which are interconnected by nerve fibers passing through the trunk.
    • Key ganglia in the sympathetic trunk include the superior cervical ganglion, middle cervical ganglion, stellate ganglion, and thoracic ganglia.
  4. Prevertebral Ganglia:

    • The prevertebral ganglia are located anteriorly in the abdominal and pelvic regions.
    • They include the celiac ganglion, superior mesenteric ganglion, inferior mesenteric ganglion, and hypogastric plexus.
    • These ganglia innervate various organs such as the heart, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and pelvic organs.
  5. Major Pathways and Structures:

    • The sympathetic nervous system follows different pathways to reach target organs.
    • The three major pathways include:
      • Preganglionic fibers synapsing with postganglionic fibers in the same sympathetic trunk ganglion at the same level.
      • Preganglionic fibers ascending or descending in the sympathetic trunk to synapse with postganglionic fibers at different levels.
      • Preganglionic fibers bypassing the sympathetic trunk and synapsing in prevertebral ganglia before reaching target organs.
    • The splanchnic nerves are responsible for carrying preganglionic fibers from the spinal cord to the prevertebral ganglia.
  6. Clinical Significance and Conditions:

    • Dysfunctions or disorders of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to various clinical manifestations.
    • Examples of conditions include Horner's syndrome, which results from interruption of the sympathetic pathway, and autonomic dysreflexia, which occurs in patients with a spinal cord injury.
    • Understanding the anatomy of the sympathetic nervous system is crucial for diagnosing and managing these conditions.


The anatomy of the sympathetic nervous system plays a central role in the body's response to stress and maintaining homeostasis. Knowledge of the origin, distribution, and major structures of the sympathetic nervous system is essential for medical students preparing for the USMLE. By mastering this information, students will be well-equipped to answer questions related to the anatomy and clinical significance of the sympathetic nervous system on the examination.

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