The somatic nervous system is part of the peripheral nervous system and plays a role in voluntary movements and sensory processing.
The somatic nervous system carries motor and sensory signals to and from the central nervous system (CNS). Because of this bodily system, we are able to control our physical movements and process four of the five senses—smell, sound, taste, and touch.
Learn more about the somatic nervous system, including its location, function, and parts. We also provide a few examples of how the somatic nervous system works, as well as how it is different from the autonomic nervous system.
Somatic Nervous System Location
The somatic nervous system includes all of the nerves that extend from the brain and spinal cord. It does not include the brain and spinal column themselves, both of which are part of the central nervous system. There are two types of somatic nerves: cranial and spinal.
The somatic nerves that extend from the brain are known as cranial nerves and are located on the back of the head and neck. There are 12 pairs of cranial nerves in total, each of which splits to carry signals between both sides of the brain and body. These nerves are often involved in neuromuscular disorders.
The somatic nerves that extend from the spinal column are known as spinal nerves. There are 31 pairs of spinal nerves. Eight come from the cervical portion of the spine, 12 are in the thoracic region, both the lumbar and sacral regions have five spinal nerves, and one is near the tailbone. A disease or injury in any of these areas can result in a loss of sensation and function below that area.
Somatic Nervous System Function
If you're wondering what the somatic system does, it has two basic functions:
- Movement control: The somatic nervous system plays a vital role in initiating and controlling the movements of your body. This system is responsible for nearly all voluntary muscle movements.
- Sensory input: The somatic system is also responsible for processing sensory information that arrives via external stimuli. It processes the senses of hearing, smell, taste, and touch.
The somatic nervous system is not involved in the processing of sight as this sense is controlled directly by the brain.
How exactly does this complex system work? Answering this question requires a closer look at its key parts.
Parts of the Somatic Nervous System
The term somatic is drawn from the Greek word soma, which means "body." This is appropriate considering that it is this system that transmits information back and forth between the CNS and the rest of the body.
The somatic nervous system contains two main types of neurons (nerve cells):
- Sensory neurons, also known asafferent neurons, are responsible for carrying information from the body to the CNS.
- Motor neurons, also known as efferent neurons, are responsible for carrying information from the brain and spinal cord to muscle fibers throughout the body.
The neurons that make up the somatic nervous system project outward from the CNS and connect directly to the muscles of the body. They carry signals from muscles and sensory organs back to the central nervous system.
The body of the neuron is located in the CNS and the axon (a portion of the neuron that carries nerve impulses away from the cell body) projects and terminates in the skin, sensory organs, or muscles.
Other components of the somatic nervous system include:
- Ganglia, which are large groups of nerve cells that are closely related
- Glial cells, which don't actively transmit signals but, instead, support nervous system cell functions
- Nuclei, or nerve cell clusters that share the same function or connections
In addition to controlling voluntary muscle movements, the somatic nervous system is also associated with involuntary movements known as reflexes (or reflex actions). These reflexes are controlled by a neural pathway known as a reflex arc.
Reflex arcs include sensory nerves that carry signals to the spinal cord, often connect with interneurons there, then immediately transmit signals down the motor neurons to the muscles that triggered the reflex.
During a reflex, muscles move involuntarily without input from the brain; you don’t have to think about doing these things. This occurs when a nerve pathway connects directly to the spinal cord. Examples of reflex actions include:
- Jerking your hand back after accidentally touching a hot pan
- Involuntary jerking when your doctor taps on your knee
Reflex arcs that impact the organs are called autonomic reflex arcs while those that affect the muscles are referred to as somatic reflex arcs.
Somatic vs. Autonomic Nervous Systems
The somatic and autonomic nervous systems are both parts of the peripheral nervous system, which allows the brain and spinal cord to receive and send information to other areas of the body. However, they have different functions.
Somatic Nervous System
Connects CNS with muscles and skin
Controls voluntary movements
Autonomic Nervous System
Connects CNS with visceral organs
Regulates involuntary body processes
The somatic nervous system connects the central nervous system with the body's muscles and skin. Its primary function is to control voluntary movements and reflex arcs, while also helping us process the senses of touch, sound, taste, and smell.
An example of a somatic system function is if you are out for a jog in the park one brisk winter morning and as you run, you step on a patch of slick ice. Once your foot starts to slip, your somatic nervous system carries a message to the muscles in your legs, enabling you to catch yourself and avoid a fall.
In comparison, the autonomic nervous system connects the CNS with visceral organs (heart, stomach, etc.) This system regulates a variety of involuntary body processes, some of which include heartbeat, blood flow, breathing, body temperature, and emotion response.
Diseases of the Somatic Nervous System
Somatic nervous system diseases are those that impact the peripheral nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord. Diseases that impact the peripheral nerve fibers of the somatic nervous system can cause what is known as peripheral neuropathy.
Peripheral neuropathy leads to nerve damage, resulting in numbness, weakness, and pain, often in the hands and feet.This damage can be caused by physical injury or trauma, diabetes, blood or vein issues, autoimmune diseases, and more.
Other somatic nervous system diseases include:
- Brachial plexus neuropathy, or damage to nerves in the upper shoulder, resulting in pain in the shoulders or arms
- Guillain-Barre syndrome, which is when the immune system attacks the nerves
- Myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disorder that leads to muscle weakness and fatigue
- Nerve compression syndromes involve pain, weakness, numbness, or tingling due to a pinched nerve
- Trigeminal neuralgia, a neuropathic condition causing shock-like pain or burning in the face
Several additional factors can ultimately lead to damage to the somatic nervous system, thus impacting its function. Among them are certain medications, exposure to toxins, and infections such as shingles, Lyme disease, and HIV.
What Is Stiff-Person Syndrome (SPS)?
Signs of Somatic Nervous System Problems
The symptoms experienced with a somatic nervous system issue can vary depending on whether the damage is to the motor nerves (which control movement) or sensory nerves (which affect the senses).
Signs of motor nerve damage include:
- Loss of movement control
- Muscle cramps or spasms
- Tremors or twitching
- Wasting of muscles (muscle shrinkage)
If there is damage to the sensory system, the following symptoms may exist:
- Inability to feel things you touch
- Numbness or tingling
- Sharp or burning pain in the damaged area
Treatments for Somatic Nervous System Conditions
Treatments used for somatic nervous system issues range from taking medication or doing physical therapy to needing nerve ablation or surgery. Other options include acupuncture, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), and using devices or equipment to assist with the physical movement process.
Healthcare professionals who specialize in treating somatic nervous system issues include:
- Neurologist - a physician trained in the treatment of nervous system disorders
- Neurosurgeon - a surgeon trained to conduct brain and spine surgeries
- Neuropsychologist - a mental health professional trained to provide services related to cognitive function
If you suspect that you may have a somatic nervous system issue, your healthcare provider can help determine whether an issue exists and/or refer you to a specialist in the neurology field for diagnosis and treatment.
Preventing Peripheral Neuropathy
While diseases that impact the somatic nervous system are not always preventable, there are lifestyle changes you can make that may help prevent peripheral neuropathy.
Some strategies that may help include:
- Avoiding alcohol
- Correcting vitamin deficiencies
- Eating a healthy diet
- Getting regular exercise
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Quitting smoking
It is also essential to treat chronic health conditions such as diabetes, which may play a role in the onset of peripheral neuropathy.
How the Peripheral Nervous System Works
What is somatic nervous system short answer? ›
The somatic nervous system is a component of the peripheral nervous system associated with the voluntary control of the body movements via the use of skeletal muscles.What is in the somatic nervous system? ›
It contains both afferent nerves (which send information to the brain and spinal cord), made of sensory neurons that inform the central nervous system about our five senses; and efferent nerves (which send information from the brain), which contain motor neurons responsible for voluntary movements, such as walking or ...What is the somatic nervous system quizlet? ›
The somatic nervous system (SoNS or voluntary nervous system) is the part of the peripheral nervous system associated with the voluntary control of body movements via skeletal muscles. The SoNS consists of afferent nerves or sensory nerves, and efferent nerves or motor nerves.What is a function of the somatic nervous system choose 1 answer choose 1 answer? ›
The somatic nervous system, also called the somatomotor or somatic efferent nervous system, supplies motor impulses to the skeletal muscles. Because these nerves permit conscious control of the skeletal muscles, it is sometimes called the voluntary nervous system.What is somatic nervous system for kids? ›
The somatic (so-MA-tik) nervous system controls actions that we do by choice (voluntarily), like walking, eating, or playing an instrument. The autonomic (ah-tuh-NOM-ik) nervous system controls processes that happen automatically (involuntarily), like breathing, digestion, sweating, and shivering.What is the somatic and autonomic nervous system? ›
The somatic nervous system consists of nerves that go to the skin and muscles and is involved in conscious activities. The autonomic nervous system consists of nerves that connect the CNS to the visceral organs such as the heart, stomach, and intestines. It mediates unconscious activities.What is somatic nervous system in psychology? ›
the part of the nervous system comprising the sensory and motor neurons that innervate the sense organs and the skeletal muscles, as opposed to the autonomic nervous system.What is somatic response examples? ›
A somatic reflex is an involuntary response to a stimulus, such as pulling one's hand away after touching a hot stove.How do you use somatic nervous system in a sentence? ›
Separate interneurons are known to communicate with striatal spiny neurons in the presence of the somatic nervous system neurotransmitter acetylcholine.Which of the following is a characteristic of the somatic nervous system? ›
The defining characteristic of the somatic nervous system is that it controls skeletal muscles. Somatic senses inform the nervous system about the external environment, but the response to that is through voluntary muscle movement.
What is the function of autonomic nervous system? ›
The autonomic nervous system is a component of the peripheral nervous system that regulates involuntary physiologic processes including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal.What are the three functions of the nervous system? ›
First, the basic functions of the nervous system are sensation, integration, and response.What does somatic mean quizlet? ›
Somatic Cell. A somatic cell is any cell of the body except sperm and egg cells. Somatic cells are diploid, meaning that they contain two sets of chromosomes, one inherited from each parent.What is nervous system in simple words? ›
What Is the Nervous System? The nervous system includes the brain, spinal cord, and a complex network of nerves. This system sends messages back and forth between the brain and the body. The brain is what controls all the body's functions. The spinal cord runs from the brain down through the back.What is the difference between somatic and sympathetic nervous system? ›
The sympathetic nervous system responds to external stimuli by preparing the body for fight or flight and the somatic nervous system responds to external stimuli (by carrying information from sensory receptors to the spinal cord and brain).What does somatic sensory mean? ›
Somatic senses are the senses that have to do with touch. Tickling and pain, like on Patrick's legs, are somatic senses, but so are other things that you might not think of right away, like temperature and movement. Somatosensory pathways relay information between the brain and nerve cells in the skin and organs.What is one difference between the autonomic and somatic nervous system? ›
The somatic nervous system has sensory and motor pathways, whereas the autonomic nervous system only has motor pathways. The autonomic nervous system controls internal organs and glands, while the somatic nervous system controls muscles and movement.What is the difference between the somatic and autonomic nervous systems quizlet? ›
The somatic nervous system includes somatic motor fibers that innervate the skeletal muscles and the skin, which gives the CNS ability to voluntarily move the muscles. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) innervates the internal organs of the body along with various glands.What is the main difference between the somatic and autonomic nervous system quizlet? ›
What is the main structural difference between the somatic and autonomic nervous systems? Motor neurons of the SNS directly control effectors, whereas motor neurons of the ANS do not directly control effectors.What is an example of somatic? ›
What are some examples of somatic cells? Somatic cells make up the connective tissue, skin, blood, bones and internal organs. Examples are muscle cells, blood cells, skin cells and nerve cells.
What is autonomic nervous system simple? ›
(AW-toh-NAH-mik NER-vus SIS-tem) The part of the nervous system that controls muscles of internal organs (such as the heart, blood vessels, lungs, stomach, and intestines) and glands (such as salivary glands and sweat glands).Why is it called somatic? ›
The term somatic is drawn from the Greek word soma, which means "body." This is appropriate considering that it is this system that transmits information back and forth between the CNS and the rest of the body. The somatic nervous system contains two main types of neurons (nerve cells):