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Know about your pain

Why do we experience pain?

Pain is normally generated when a potentially harmful stimulus (noxious), caused by heat, tissue damage or inflammation, activates high threshold receptors that send messages along the spinal cord to the brain. Different nerve pathways and chemical substances are involved with the control of pain, and the balance of these mechanisms often changes after a spinal cord injury.

Icon of lightning bolt with arrow

A strong stimulus triggers the nerve

Icon of brain with arrow

A message reaches the spinal cord then travels to the brain

icon of lightbulb with cord to the brain

The messages are relayed to different parts of the brain

This is the point when you start experiencing pain

Pain gate mechanism

pain gate mechanism diagram

At various levels of the spinal cord and in the brain, there is a natural gate that filters information to ensure you only become aware of sensations when they reach a critical level or threshold.

The gates, when closed, help to turn down the volume of information received by the brain.

If these gates are not closed, your brain can become confused due to too much information.

Effects of spinal cord injury on pain

Due to damage to the nerves after a spinal cord injury, the gates struggle to close. The spinal cord itself becomes sensitised or hyperexcitable to this sensory information.

The damaged spinal cord tries to reorganise and rewire itself after injury. Faulty rewiring at the injury site causes the nerves to fire off in an uncontrolled manner, even when triggered by a stimulus that is not usually painful.

For example, a light brushing touch may be experienced as an electric shock or burning pain.

effects of injury on spinal cord diagram

Good news!

The pain gates in your nervous system are found not only in the spinal cord but also in the brain. You can retrain the brain to turn down your pain.

diagram of pain gate mechanism linked to brain

We know there are pathways coming down from the brain to the spinal cord that control these gates. The release of certain chemicals excites the pain pathways, so the gates open up. Other chemicals close the gates.

You can use physical, psychological and medical strategies to turn down the
pain volume.