PAIN BYTE #2: No Brain, No Pain

Our old understanding of pain, was that it originated within the tissues of our body, such as a physical reaction to an injury. We believed that pain receptors sent a one-way signal to the brain's pain center. The intensity of pain experienced was thought to be in direct proportion to tissue damage. Kind of  like a pain-meter. We assumed the more damage, the more pain.  If that were true, why is a paper cut so painful? Or, why can a migraine be so debilitating? The severity of the pain report does not always give an accurate indication of the degree of damage. 

We now know that pain is much more complicated. Pain involves a complex interaction between your peripheral nervous system, your spinal cord & your brain. Sensory nerves are spread throughout your entire body. These sensors, or nociceptors, detect certain types of stimulation, and carry information (heat, cold, pressure and other messages) from the skin, muscles and internal organs to your spinal cord. These messages are "danger" messages, not pain messages. Once these messages are evaluated or modified at the spinal cord, the information is then relayed up to your brain. 

Your brain evaluates all the information by looking at memory, emotional context, sensory information, consequences and reasoning. It very quickly consults with many different areas of your brain before determining the appropriate response. Pain will not be experienced until the brain determines it does. 

Scientist have now learned that the spinal cord and brain has the ability to act like a "gate", controlling the flow of messages that are received, or sent from it. You This is known as the "Gate Control Theory" of pain.

The brain controls the pain

Primary purpose of pain is to protect you from danger. Your brain’s goal is to determine if it needs to produce pain, and if it serves a purpose in that moment. Your brain can amplify the pain – especially if it perceives it as immediate danger or life threatening. Or the brain can close the gate and block the pain by releasing endorphins - narcotics made by the body to suppress pain. This is why we are able to undertake remarkable feats. The experience of pain is completely controlled by the brain. 100% of the time, with no exceptions.

Pain is output from the brain, not an input from the body.

I hope you enjoyed this interesting byte of pain science and that it helps change how you think about your pain!
Sue Ann

This PAIN BYTE is adapted from "Explain Pain Supercharged", by David Butler and Lorimer Moseley of NOI (Neuro Orthopaedic Institute. Neuroscience nuggets are information nuggets – short, quick, chunks of information, related to an interesting bit of neuroscience. 

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