A Mind's Perception of Pain

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Category: Chronic Pain Articles Published on Wednesday, 25 June 2008 Written by Yong Tsai, MD
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Why does it seem that some people’s pain threshold is greater than others? Why do some people grab their jaw when they hear the mere word “dentist” or some mothers hold their belly when they see a very pregnant woman walk by? A lot of it depends on an individuals’ past and perception.

Our natural protective response mechanism, known as “pain”, alerts us when something like tissue injury occurs by creating an unpleasant sensation. However, it’s the body’s central (brain and spinal cord) and peripheral (nerve fibers and endings) nervous systems, that allow us to feel positive and negative sensations, such as a massage or a paper cut, by transmitting signals to and from the brain, spinal cord and other parts of the body.

Pain receptors are located within nerve endings throughout the skin, muscles, ligaments and joints within our body. So when injury, inflammation or disease occurs, the local pain receptors are able to detect tissue damage.

Subsequently, neurotransmitters, which are located in each nerve cell as well as in the spinal cord and brain, transmit electrical impulses from the pain receptor to the peripheral nerve and up the spinal cord. These pain signals are transported by the spinal cord and arrive at a halfway point; a particular part of the brain called either the “thalamus” or the “essential sensory relay station.” From this point, the pain signals make their connections to various parts of the brain, including the “somatosensory cortex”, where pain signals are localized and decoded, and grouped in the “frontal lobe”, where most of our thought process takes place, or in the “limbic area”, where our emotions are centered.

The process of registering and interpreting pain signals as feelings, memories and attitudes, then triggers the return of these translated signals back down the spinal cord to either increase, called “descending facilitating signals” or to decrease, called “descending inhibitory signals”, the perception of the incoming pain messages.

Factors such as emotions, memories, life experiences and previous learning, frequently thought of as “nonphysical”, can indeed intensify individual pain perception.

Because acute (immediate) and chronic (constant) pain are different, the undeniable link between our mind and body, in regards to the processing and decoding of pain signals, has been determined to be crucial in the management of chronic pain.

Together, positive thoughts, relaxation, meditation, and exercise can form an ideal foundation in conjunction with other treatment such as physical therapy, acupuncture, massage, soft tissue manipulation or analgesics can close the “pain gate” and minimize the intensity of pain you experience.

Pain medications, for the treatment pain, cannot solely resolve your pain, particularly chronic pain. Fortunately, in conjunction with an effective combination of positive reinforcements you can find the tools to strategically block your pain and decrease its intensity for a productive and normal life!

 

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