Sympathetic Division of The Autonomic Nervous System

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Neurons from the lateral horn of the spinal cord (preganglionic nerve fibers – solid lines)) project to the chain ganglia on either side of the vertebral column or to collateral (prevertebral) ganglia that are anterior to the vertebral column in the abdominal cavity. Axons from these ganglionic neurons (postganglionic nerve fibers – dotted lines) then project to target effectors throughout the body. To continue with the analogy of the circuit diagram, there are three different types of “junctions” that operate within the

Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

To respond to a threat—to fight or to run away—the sympathetic system causes divergent effects as many different effector organs are activated together for a common purpose. More oxygen needs to be inhaled and delivered to skeletal muscle. The respiratory, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal systems are all activated together. Additionally, sweating keeps the excess heat that comes from muscle contraction from causing the body to overheat. The digestive system shuts down so that blood is not absorbing nutrients when it should be delivering oxygen to skeletal muscles. To coordinate all these responses, the connections in the sympathetic system diverge from a limited region of the central nervous system (CNS) to a wide array of ganglia that project to the many effector organs simultaneously. The complex set of structures that compose the output of the sympathetic system make it possible for these disparate effectors to come together in a coordinated, systemic change.

The sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system influences the various organ systems of the body through connections emerging from the thoracic and upper lumbar spinal cord. It is referred to as the thoracolumbar system to reflect this anatomical basis. A central neuron in the lateral horn of any of these spinal regions projects to ganglia adjacent to the vertebral column through the ventral spinal roots. The majority of ganglia of the sympathetic system belong to a network of sympathetic chain ganglia that runs alongside the vertebral column. The ganglia appear as a series of clusters of neurons linked by axonal bridges. There are typically 23 ganglia in the chain on either side of the spinal column. Three correspond to the cervical region, 12 are in the thoracic region, four are in the lumbar region, and four correspond to the sacral region. The cervical and sacral levels are not connected to the spinal cord directly through the spinal roots, but through ascending or descending connections through the bridges within the chain.

A diagram that shows the connections of the sympathetic system is somewhat like a circuit diagram that shows the electrical connections between different receptacles and devices.

To continue with the analogy of the circuit diagram, there are three different types of “junctions” that operate within the sympathetic system. The first type is most direct: the sympathetic nerve projects to the chain ganglion at the same level as the target effector (the organ, tissue, or gland to be innervated). An example of this type is spinal nerve T1 that synapses with the T1 chain ganglion to innervate the trachea. The fibers of this branch are called white rami communicantes (singular = ramus communicans); they are myelinated and therefore referred to as white. The axon from the central neuron (the preganglionic fiber shown as a solid line) synapses with the ganglionic neuron (with the postganglionic fiber shown as a dashed line). This neuron then projects to a target effector—in this case, the trachea—via gray rami communicantes, which are unmyelinated axons.

In some cases, the target effectors are located superior or inferior to the spinal segment at which the preganglionic fiber emerges. With respect to the “wiring” involved, the synapse with the ganglionic neuron occurs at chain ganglia superior or inferior to the location of the central neuron. An example of this is spinal nerve T1 that innervates the eye. The spinal nerve tracks up through the chain until it reaches the superior cervical ganglion, where it synapses with the postganglionic neuron. The cervical ganglia are referred to as paravertebral ganglia, given their location adjacent to prevertebral ganglia in the sympathetic chain.

Not all axons from the central neurons terminate in the chain ganglia. Additional branches from the ventral nerve root continue through the chain and on to one of the collateral ganglia as the greater splanchnic nerve or lesser splanchnic nerve. For example, the greater splanchnic nerve at the level of T5 synapses with a collateral ganglion outside the chain before making the connection to the postganglionic nerves that innervate the stomach.

Collateral ganglia, also called prevertebral ganglia, are situated anterior to the vertebral column and receive inputs from splanchnic nerves as well as central sympathetic neurons. They are associated with controlling organs in the abdominal cavity, and are also considered part of the enteric nervous system. The three collateral ganglia are the celiac ganglion, the superior mesenteric ganglion, and the inferior mesenteric ganglion. The word celiac is derived from the Latin word “coelom,” which refers to a body cavity (in this case, the abdominal cavity), and the word mesenteric refers to the digestive system.

An axon from the central neuron that projects to a sympathetic ganglion is referred to as a preganglionic fiber or neuron, and represents the output from the CNS to the ganglion. Because the sympathetic ganglia are adjacent to the vertebral column, preganglionic sympathetic fibers are relatively short, and they are myelinated. A postganglionic fiber—the axon from a ganglionic neuron that projects to the target effector—represents the output of a ganglion that directly influences the organ. Compared with the preganglionic fibers, postganglionic sympathetic fibers are long because of the relatively greater distance from the ganglion to the target effector. These fibers are unmyelinated. (Note that the term “postganglionic neuron” may be used to describe the projection from a ganglion to the target. The problem with that usage is that the cell body is in the ganglion, and only the fiber is postganglionic. Typically, the term neuron applies to the entire cell.)

One type of preganglionic sympathetic fiber does not terminate in a ganglion. These are the axons from central sympathetic neurons that project to the adrenal medulla, the interior portion of the adrenal gland. These axons are still referred to as preganglionic fibers, but the target is not a ganglion. The adrenal medulla releases signaling molecules into the bloodstream, rather than using axons to communicate with target structures. The cells in the adrenal medulla that are contacted by the preganglionic fibers are called chromaffin cells. These cells are neurosecretory cells that develop from the neural crest along with the sympathetic ganglia, reinforcing the idea that the gland is, functionally, a sympathetic ganglion.

The projections of the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system diverge widely, resulting in a broad influence of the system throughout the body. As a response to a threat, the sympathetic system would increase heart rate and breathing rate and cause blood flow to the skeletal muscle to increase and blood flow to the digestive system to decrease. Sweat gland secretion should also increase as part of an integrated response. All of those physiological changes are going to be required to occur together to run away from the hunting lioness, or the modern equivalent. This divergence is seen in the branching patterns of preganglionic sympathetic neurons—a single preganglionic sympathetic neuron may have 10–20 targets. An axon that leaves a central neuron of the lateral horn in the thoracolumbar spinal cord will pass through the white ramus communicans and enter the sympathetic chain, where it will branch toward a variety of targets. At the level of the spinal cord at which the preganglionic sympathetic fiber exits the spinal cord, a branch will synapse on a neuron in the adjacent chain ganglion. Some branches will extend up or down to a different level of the chain ganglia. Other branches will pass through the chain ganglia and project through one of the splanchnic nerves to a collateral ganglion. Finally, some branches may project through the splanchnic nerves to the adrenal medulla. All of these branches mean that one preganglionic neuron can influence different regions of the sympathetic system very broadly, by acting on widely distributed organs.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: