Anyone with a chronic pain condition like fibromyalgia knows how it can take over your life. It seems like sometimes everything you do is controlled by the level of pain you’re experiencing. But while we think of “pain” as a general term, doctors actually have a number of ways of classifying pain.
One of the largest categories of pain is something called “nociceptive pain.” Nociceptive pain is any pain that comes from the tissue of the body. And learning about how nociceptive pain works can actually teach us a lot about how the body processes pain generally.
So, what is nociceptive pain? And what can it teach us about how to treat pain?
What Is Nociceptive Pain?
Your skin and the tissue underneath is full of cells called nociceptors. When these cells are stimulated, they send electrical signals to the brain.The brain then interprets these signals as pain and sends the sensation back down the nervous system to the area where the receptors are located. This is why when you stub your toe, for instance, you feel pain in that area.
The sensation of pain originates in the brain, rather than the toe itself.
Usually, it takes a lot to stimulate these receptors. That’s why you don’t feel pain when someone touches your arm, but you do when you cut or burn it. Cuts or burns destroy the tissue and send a strong stimulus to the receptors.
Any pain that is based on transmissions from the nociceptors is classified as nociceptive pain. This category includes everything from injuries to inflammation from a condition like arthritis or infections to exposure to harmful chemicals.
As you can imagine, it’s a fairly broad category. And most of the pain that people experience in their everyday life tends to fall into it.
Treating that pain obviously depends on the cause, but if you ever find yourself taking an over-the-counter painkiller like aspirin or ibuprofen, or putting an ice pack on a tender area, then you’re probably dealing with nociceptive pain.
Of course, you may be wondering what purpose pain really serves at all. Wouldn’t our lives be better if we never felt any physical pain? But it turns out nociceptive pain actually plays an important role in our survival. It works as a warning signal in our brain. The nociceptors are an early warning sign that you’re being injured.
Without pain signals, someone could absent-mindedly place their hand near a hot stove, for instance. If they didn’t feel pain, they may leave their hand there until they were seriously burned. The quick, sharp sensation of pain that your nociceptors send to the brain makes you instinctively jerk your hand away before you suffer from serious tissue damage.
That short-term pain helps prevent more pain in the long-term. The problem with pain occurs when you suffer from a condition that causes serious, chronic pain and there is no way to fix it. Our bodies aren’t equipped to turn off pain signals when they become inconvenient. So the pain that helps keep us alive becomes a serious problem for our overall quality of life.
But as it turns out, understanding how nociceptive pain works can actually help us understand a lot about conditions that cause chronic pain and how we may one day be able to treat them.
What Can It Teach Us About How To Treat Pain?
Understanding the pathways between the nociceptors and the brain may one day allow doctors to block these pain signals completely.
One theory, the “gate control theory of pain,” suggests a way this could be possible. Basically, the theory argues that pain signals can be blocked by introducing other sensations. This is why people often instinctively rub an area where they are injured. The sensation of vibration from the rubbing can help block, or “gate,” some of the pain signals and reduce the pain you feel. If doctors could find a way to use that mechanism to introduce a pain-blocking stimulus, it could help us shut off the pain.
And understanding how nociceptive pain works also helps us understand why people with conditions that cause chronic pain seem to experience pain differently from other people. Nociceptive Pain sensations can become stronger over time due to a condition called “hyperalgesia.” Hyperalgesia occurs when nociceptors are consistently exposed to pain signals. Over time, the nociceptors become hyper-sensitized to pain.
This means that people with chronic pain eventually begin to experience pain more intensely than they normally would. Learning more about how this process works may eventually lead to a way to stop it. And that would be a very significant breakthrough in the field of treating chronic pain.
So, what do you think? Did you know that there were different types of pain? Could studying nociceptive pain help us make a breakthrough? Tell us in the comments.