Our Unique Skin - Spotlight on Dermatomes

One of the most undervalued areas of our skin is that of dermatomes. What are they and what important role do they play?

In simple language, they are areas of our skin that trigger impulses to the brain through nerves in our spine. So the brain immediately tells us for example a change in temperature or pain.

Spinal nerves exit the spine in pairs. There are 31 pairs in total, and 30 of these have corresponding dermatomes. When our spinal nerve is damaged, the reverse happens and it triggers in the dermatome. Our spinal nerves can be damaged by infection, trauma through an accident or severe constriction.

Why Are Dermatomes Important?

They are important as doctors can sometimes use the severity of symptoms in a dermatome to determine the extent and even location of nerve damage. Once determined, it's easier to diagnose and treat the underlying cause of the damage.

Additionally, the location of dermatomes on the skin can be used on a patient to precisely pinpoint the area that is the cause of many medical conditions and illnesses because their distribution is exactly located in the same areas in every human.

So if a patient was in a motor vehicle accident and suffered spinal cord trauma, the dermatomes help in making the correct assessment to diagnose the exact level of spinal cord injury.

Dr Ravi Ramachandran MD explains how this actually works. He says:-

"When I examine people in the office, I will test a dermatome for sensation. I saw a patient last week who had hip osteoarthritis. He had pain over his right thigh. When I examined him, he had a hypersensitivity over the L2,3 distribution. As it turns out, he has a herniated disc at that level in his lumbar spine that is the source of his pain."

Dr Ramachandran went on to explain something quite unique about dermatomes. He stated:-

"Because a dermatome is a roadmap of nerves it can also explain referred pain. Referred pain is a phenomenon where structures in the body can confuse nerve perception. An example is when someone has an inflamed gall bladder or cholecystitis. The gall bladder can inflame the diaphragm which is innervated by C3,4 and C5. The C3,4 dermatome innervate above the shoulder. Rarely, a patient will come to the office with right shoulder pain but the pain is coming from cholecystitis."

This useful roadmap found on our skin, which can expertly help medical professionals carry out their jobs should not be overlooked. Rather, we should take note of our beautiful and sensitive skin and treat it kindly.

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