The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is a branch of the autonomic nervous system along with the enteric nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system. It is always active at a basal level (called sympathetic tone) and becomes more active during times of stress. Its actions during the stress response comprise the fight-or-flight response.
At synapses within the sympathetic ganglia, preganglionic sympathetic neurons release acetylcholine, a chemical messenger that binds and activates nicotinic acetylcholine receptors on postganglionic neurons. In response to this stimulus, postganglionic neurons principally release noradrenaline (norepinephrine). Prolonged activation can elicit the release of adrenaline from the adrenal medulla.
Once released, noradrenaline and adrenaline bind adrenergic receptors on peripheral tissues. Binding to adrenergic receptors causes the effects seen during the fight-or-flight response. These include pupil dilation, increased heart rate, occasional vomiting, and increased blood pressure. Increased sweating is also seen due to binding of cholinergic receptors of the sweat glands.
The sympathetic nervous system involves spinal nerves T1 to L2 or L3.
Science typically looks at the SNS as an automatic regulation system, that is, one that operates without the intervention of conscious thought. Some evolutionary theorists suggest that the sympathetic nervous system operated in early organisms to maintain survival as the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for priming the body for action. One example of this priming is in the moments before waking, in which sympathetic outflow spontaneously increases in preparation for action.
In order to reach the target organs and glands, the axons must travel long distances in the body, and, to accomplish this, many axons link up with the axon of a second cell. The ends of the axons do not make direct contact, but rather link across a space, the synapse.
In the SNS and other components of the peripheral nervous system, these synapses are made at sites called ganglia. The cell that sends its fiber is called a preganglionic cell, while the cell whose fiber leaves the ganglion is called a postganglionic cell. As mentioned previously, the preganglionic cells of the SNS are located between the first thoracic segment and third lumbar segments of the spinal cord. Postganglionic cells have their cell bodies in the ganglia and send their axons to target organs or glands.
The ganglia include not just the sympathetic trunks but also the cervical ganglia (superior, middle and inferior), which sends sympathetic nerve fibers to the head and thorax organs, and the celiac and mesenteric ganglia (which send sympathetic fibers to the gut).
The first synapse (in the sympathetic chain) is mediated by nicotinic receptors physiologically activated by acetylcholine, and the target synapse is mediated by adrenergic receptors physiologically activated by either noradrenaline (norepinephrine) or adrenaline (epinephrine). An exception is with sweat glands which receive sympathetic innervation but have muscarinic acetylcholine receptors which are normally characteristic of PNS. Another exception is with certain deep muscle blood vessels, which have acetylcholine receptors and which dilate (rather than constrict) with an increase in sympathetic tone.