How Does a Pain Gate Control My Pain?

Pain gate is a  theory, or scientific thought, which has been used in the medical world to help explain how pain perception probably works. This popular theory was developed by two men, Melzack and Wall in the late 1960’s and is still known today as the “Gate Control Theory of Pain’.

A shortened version of the name, the pain gate, is used widely today in colleges and other pain related resources and explains how the sensation of pain is felt in or on the body. This ‘gate’ is actually a neuron that allows or disallows transmission of an impulse. A toll booth is a good visual description of a pain gate.

First of all, pain is described as a sensory or physical experience that depends on our environment at the time. Pain is the body’s warning system that all is not well and it tries to get the body to respond by removing itself from danger.

This pain theory states that the perception of pain is controlled by three internal systems found in the spinal cord,

  •  A gelatin substance found in the dorsal horns of the vertebrae
  •  The dorsal column fibers
  • Central nervous system cells

These substances or cells are hard to describe, spell and say. To make it easier let’s just say that when a person feels pain or a sensation of pain, nerve fibers are the key player in the communication of that pain. A pain gate opens and closes to let painful impulses go to and from the brain.

Everyone has a combination of large and small nerve fibers. Nerve fibers allow communication between the brain and all other body parts. These fibers send messages, much like a telegraph , and all body organs and systems are able to ‘talk’ with each other by these pathways.

Larger nerve fibers have been found to slow pain impulses, whereas smaller nerve fibers speed up and allow painful sensations to hurry to the brain. The pain gate, or synapse, is the toll booth of the nervous system and allows or prevents pain impulses from traveling its complete circuit depending on impulses.

When you touch your finger to a hot stove for example, small nerve fibers in the fingertip send signals to the brain alerting it. The brain in turn sends signals back down to control muscle movement and enables conscious muscle movement  to remove your finger from the stove. The response to pain takes milliseconds to travel from the fingertip up to the brain, and back down again to initiate movement.

The pain gate theory established that psychological or emotional factors influence the perception of pain. For example,

  •  If you are having fun with friends, and you stub your toe, your interaction with others often dulls the perception of pain and you just continue on with what you are doing.
  •  Some individuals, who are raised in a stoic household, tend to show a decreased response to pain.  
  • When someone is sad or depressed, pain is usually felt more strongly

The pain gate is the major factor for our individual perception of pain. More information may be obtained from certified pain resources.

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