How the Nervous System Detects and Interprets Pain


January 26, 2021

How your Nervous System Detects and Interprets Pain is nothing short of miraculous. Think about it. How does your brain know the difference from a feather touch to a pinch, or what about the fact that your brain knows when you’re in pain? 

So, does that mean that if the pain signal doesn’t make it to your brain that you won’t feel any pain? And how does your body know when to produce pain in a specific part of your body? Does your brain send signals to tell your body whether a pain will be acute or become chronic? So many questions, and too many complex answers that the layperson can’t comprehend, so what do you do? 

Southeast Pain & Spine Care can help you to understand the basics of how your nervous system detects and interprets your pain in a way that you can understand. With a focus on interventional pain procedures, supporting medications and advanced therapies to help you control and relieve your pain.

What the Nervous System Is And What It Does

There are two main parts that make up the nervous system — the brain and spinal cord — which in combination forms the central nervous system; including your motor and sensory nerves, which makes up the peripheral nervous system

You see, the brain and spinal cord receive signals from your nerves while sending out large patterns of signals to the muscles controlling your arms, legs, and spinal movements. The spinal cord consistently receives updates to your sensors that detect your muscle flexibility, endurance and strength. 

So in a nutshell, sensory nerves send impulse updates to your brain through your spinal cord. The brain then sends updates to the motor nerves, which is the reason why we perform actions. 

What Is The Role Of the Nerves In Relation To Identify Pain Sensations?

Some nerves send signals related to light touch, while others react to intense pressure. For instance, if you accidentally step on a toy truck left lying around, how is your sensory nerve in the peripheral nervous system able to decipher the difference in pain sensations? Well, that’s because different sensory nerve fibers produce different chemical responses that are able to interpret the different sensations as well as reacting to it.

Whenever an injury happens, special pain receptors called nociceptors are activated. Remember the toy truck from earlier? Well, let’s say that when you stepped on that truck luck was on your side, and you didn’t break any skin. Your nociceptors will still shoot off a response from your nerve, through the spinal cord, en route to your brain due to the compression of the tissues in your foot from stepping on the toy truck. 

What Role Does The Spinal Cord Play in Response To Pain?

The complexity of the spinal cord, with all its bundles of nerves transmitting all sorts of signals back and forth from the brain at will. Calling it the Indy 5000 for motor and sensory impulses would fit well. Look at your spinal cord like the office manager, not only does it send and receive messages — it also makes basic decisions, known as “reflexes“. 

At the same time — directing impulses to the brain and back down the spinal cord to the injured area is the information hub. The information hub is an area of your spinal cord known as the dorsal horn. So, when you stepped on that truck, the first impulse was to quickly lift your foot, right? That’s because your dorsal horn had already sent the message. So again, your spinal cord is like an office manager, but your brain is the CEO running the show. 

DRG neurons arise from the spinal nerves of the dorsal root, which carries sensory messages from several receptors, inclusive of the response from the nervous system towards pain and temperature. Ask your specialist at Southeast Pain & Spine Care if Dorsal root ganglion (DRG) stimulation could be an option for your chronic pain.

The Role of the Brain in Interpreting Pain

Although your spinal reflex happens at the dorsal horn, the signal from the pain will proceed to your brain because pain necessitates more than stimulation and response. The goal of the pain signal, once it reaches your brain, is to get to the thalamus. The thalamus’s job is to direct the signal to many areas of understanding, at which point some areas in the cortex figure out where the pain originated and compares it to similar types of pain. 

Have you ever wondered why you cry with some types of pain? Well, that’s due to the limbic system, which is the emotional part of your brain that receives signals from your thalamus. Every sensation you experience is associated with feelings and each feeling will generate a response courtesy of the limbic system. 

How Does Acute Pain Become Chronic Pain?

If you have pain that goes away once the injury has healed, that’s acute pain. However, sometimes, those pain receptors continue, normally this is due to either a condition that’s causing damage to your tissues or other conditions like arthritis, fibromyalgia and other similar illnesses. 

For example, if your joint is in daily despair causing signals of pain to go back and forth to the brain with little pause, there is likely tissue damage, and even when no tissue damage is observed, the nociceptors continue to shoot off impulses, this is known as chronic pain, which is more difficult to treat because it’s a challenge to pinpoint. 

Southeast Pain & Spine Care can help you to understand the basics of how your nervous system detects and interprets your pain in a way that you can understand.  Contact us today if you’re ready to start living your best pain-free life. In the meantime, visit our blog over here.