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What Is a Dermatome?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 05 April 2014
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A dermatome is an area of skin which is innervated by a single spinal nerve. There are 30 pairs of dermatomes in the body, from the skull to the toes, and each can be traced back to a specific nerve root. Although most maps of the dermatomes show distinct zones, there is in fact a fair amount of overlap, but understanding how the dermatomes work can be important in the treatment and diagnosis of disease.

Along the torso, the dermatomes look like horizontal bands, with each band corresponding to a particular nerve root. The arms and legs have longitudinal bands, which explains why pain sometimes shoots down an arm or a leg, because it is following the dermatome. Cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral nerves all supply nerve fibers to various dermatomes in the body. For example, the back of the leg is covered by a dermatome which is innervated by the first sacral nerve.

In patients with neurological problems, pain in a particular dermatome can be a very revealing symptom. A doctor can study the pain to figure out which dermatome or dermatomes it is confined to, and use this information to look for signs of damage in a particular area. For example, someone with spinal compression causing a pinched nerve might experience significant pain in the dermatome innervated by that nerve. Likewise, in someone with a shingles outbreak, the areas of pain on the body would correspond with particular spinal nerves affected by the virus which causes shingles.

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Pain in a dermatome is a symptom, not a condition, but it can be a very important symptom. Patients who report chronic pain or transient pain in a particular zone of their bodies can be revealing important information about a neurological condition or spinal cord problem, and a doctor can use that information to recommend treatment or refer the patient to a specialist who can address the problem.

This type of pain can be extremely frustrating for patients, because it has no clear physical cause, and it can come and go sporadically, depending on the type of damage. The skin may feel like it is itching, burning, or experiencing other sensations which are not really occurring, including extreme cold or severe pain. By tracing the pain back to the responsible nerve, a doctor can develop a treatment plan to address or manage the underlying cause so that the patient will not experience the undesirable sensations associated with nerve damage or other impairments to nerve function.

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Discuss this Article

anon937435
Post 3

The purpose of dermatomes is to show where a problem may lie within the spine. For example, L3 (Lumbar Vertebrae 3) dermatome area is to the bottom part of your upper thigh and your knee. If you experience a problem here in your upper thigh, it gives clinicians an idea that L3 may be causing a nerve problem.

There are also myotomes. These are nerves that supply a muscle. For example, the myotome for L3 is the muscles that produce knee extension. If the patient cannot resist knee extension, this may suggest again a problem with the nerve root at L3.

Pins and needles and numbness are also signs of a nerve problem. Along with sharp shooting pains, and burning sensations/pain.

Misscoco
Post 2

I know of two acquaintances who have fibromyalgia. Doctors don't know a lot about fibromyalgia. They know there are points of severe pain in certain places in the body. For example, there is pain in the upper back, waist,and shoulders. My friends complain that the pain is real, but nothing wrong can be found with the muscles.

They don't know what causes fibromyalgia. The researchers' best guess is that the original problem is in the nerves of the brain and the problem manifests it in tender spots on the body. This sounds somewhat similar to what happens when the spinal nerves send down messages to the dermatomes. And the pain comes on the skin.

PinkLady4
Post 1

So what is the purpose of these dermatomes? Is it to display a warning or symptom of a spinal problem? Is irritation of the dermatomes the only way to alert the body of nerve problems?

I am thinking about the time when my young daughter got a bad case of shingles. She had a curved line of skin irritation and pain from her lower spine to the middle of her abdomen. At the time, I thought the infection (virus) was located in this skin irritated area. But, actually the virus was in the spinal cord. The pain was terrible for her, but I guess her dermatomes were loudly informing her that she had a serious problem.

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