What Everyone Should Know About Pain

The neurobiology of pain

Pain, like every other sensory and emotional experience we have, arises from activity in the brain. How that neuronal activity in the brain leads to our subjective experiences is still a major mystery for neuroscience. However, we do know quite a bit about which areas of the brain are important for our perception of pain. In the simplest situation — an acute injury to the body — the “noxious” event (our technical term for an injury) causes activation of sensory endings in the injured tissue (skin, muscle, joint). These nerve endings, called nociceptors, send signals to the spinal cord and the brain. The spinal cord processes these signals and engages reflexive reactions. The brain processes these signals and provides for our conscious perception of the event — a sense of pain — and provides for a more elaborate response to the event by engaging the entire body in a coordinated manner. Different areas of the brain seem to be responsible for different aspects of our perception of pain, for instance, distinguishing between pain and nonpainful contact, vs. feeling unhappy about the experience, vs. wanting to do something to escape the pain. Because these different aspects of the pain experience are orchestrated by different areas of the brain, it is possible to, for instance, recognize pain but learn to not have an emotional reaction to it, or to not move away from it. Thus, people can have a complex range of pain experiences, and these experiences can change over time.

We recommend the following resource for additional information:
The Chronic Pain Research Alliance

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