On the 500year anniversary of his death, it is time to consider how Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic view of man in a square and a circle has shaped our traditional view of the human body. For patients and physicians alike, we are taught to think of the body from “head to toe”, but this standard view fails to emphasize the true relation of the pelvic floor to the rest of the body.
The neural axis and neural crest cells have a key role in guiding tissue growth and form. (1) These nerves create templates of cranial to caudal segmental anatomy that guide tissue growth and development of the embryo. Let us consider a new view from the perspective of the nervous system, and explore how Leonardo might help to reveal some of the clinically important patterns of human form and function associated with pelvic floor problems.
The spinal nerves of the neck are ordered so that proximal nerves move proximal joints and more distal segments innervate more distal joints to move the muscles of the upper limbs. Thus C5 moves the shoulder, C6 elbow, C7 wrist, C8 long flexors and extensors of the fingers, and T1 moves the intrinsic muscles of the hand. In the same way, nerves of the lower limb are ordered such that the spinal segments that innervate the hip L2 and L3 are proximal to those for the knee L4 and L5, which in turn are proximal to the ankle S1 and toes S2 and S3. The spinal nerve segments responsible for pelvic floor muscle function include S2, S3 and S4, and thus overlap with those to the feet and extend more caudally in the conus of the cord.
We propose a re-configured da Vinci figure set in a triangle. Simply the figure must assume a new position: sitting, with legs out in a split, arms folded across the chest. In this posture, we view the human figure as the nervous system does and reveal a new truth about our human condition. (2)
No longer the familiar figure standing strong and impervious, but pressed down into the triangle we present the body in a way that more accurately reflects our anatomy and development, not only vulnerable to congenital anomalies, but also subject to a range of clinical variation. Our figure in a triangle retains the safe space around the head, but the bottom sits directly on the vulnerable perineum, with no wiggle room below. Toes still reach to the margin of the figure, but now the tail end is “on the line”, making human newborns vulnerable to developmental shortfall such as imperforate or ectopic anus. Thus, instead of “head to toe”, the figure encapsulated in a triangle reaches from head to tail, and like the spinal cord from the base of the skull down to the coccyx and anus reaching not only to, but also beyond the spinal segments that extend nerves into the feet and toes. Experience tells us, it is easier to buy gloves that fit well than to buy shoes, because our hands are more similar than our feet are to one another.
We have recognized clinical patterns of asymmetry in our patients with severe voiding symptoms and wondered what the significance might be. For example, those requiring surgical therapy such as electrical stimulation demand a choice of lead placement either on the right or on the left, and in this setting we have an opportunity to explore the clinical relevance of asymmetry. We have assessed the association between laterality of lead placement and patient asymmetry and hypothesize a better outcome with lead placement on the less well-formed and less versatile side.