Pain Receptors and How They Work
You may not be aware, but you have what are known as nociceptors throughout your body. Don’t worry – this is a good thing. Nociceptors is the clinical name for pain receptors, and these receptors are found everywhere, from your skin to your internal organs. These nerve endings tell your body when it is in trouble by sending pain signals to your brain. These signals alert you that damage is being done to your body and that you should respond. In most cases, this is a good thing. However, chronic pain can make daily life a miserable experience. Here’s some more information on pain receptors and how they work so that you might understand them better and possibly use that information to manage your pain response.
Types of Nerve Fibers
You have different types of nerve fibers in your body that handle different sensations. For instance, your A-alpha and A-beta nerve fibers handle things like spatial awareness and touch. But it’s A-delta and C-type nerve fibers that handle pain.
A-delta nerve fibers are the sharp pain detectors. Whenever you prick your finger, burn your hand, or do anything else to cause tissue damage, these pain receptors immediately send an electronic signal from the damaged area to the end of the nerve connection in your spinal cord. Those electronic signals are transmitted from one neuron (nerve cell) to another until it reaches the thalamus, which then sends signals to different parts of the brain. These signals go to the limbic system, which is in charge of your emotions; the frontal cortex, which is in charge of thinking; and the somatosensory sensory cortex, which is in charge of the physical sensation. The result is that you physically react by pulling away from the pain, immediately try to determine the source of the pain, and likely feel some sort of emotional response to the pain.
C nerve fibers, on the other hand, are your slow receptors. These pick up dull pains like itching or muscle aches and transmit the information through the same nerve network as would a sharp pain.
Types of Pain
Your two types of nerve receptors have a number of types of pain that they respond to.
- Silent Pain – This is when you have a pre-existing hurt, like a bruise, and someone touches it.
- Mechanical – This is when damage is done to your body through means of something mechanical, like when you cut your finger with a knife.
- Chemical – This is when there is a chemical reaction that is causing your pain, such as eating really spicy food.
- Thermal – This is when your body is responding to burning or tingling sensations caused by extreme heat or cold.
- Polymodal – This is anytime more than one of the types of pain listed above are experienced at the same time.
Phases of Pain
There are three phases that you go through when you experience pain, and you enter each phase based on the amount of time that has elapsed since the injury.
- Phase 1. This is the time period immediately after the injury. The moment you cut your finger or get stung by a bee, you are in Phase 1. This is where the pain receptors cause your body to immediately respond to the pain in order to minimize the damage to your tissues.
- Phase 2. During this phase, the pain is not as intense as what you experienced in Phase 1. However, it lasts longer. For example, Phase 1 is when you initially get stung by a bee, but Phase 2 is that lingering pain or ache you feel in the area that was stung.
- Phase 3. This is pain that lasts anywhere from days to years. This could be ongoing pain from a deep cut into the muscle that lasts until the wound heals. However, it could become chronic pain that lasts years if there was nerve damage.
Ways to Relieve Pain
There are two common methods by which pain is relieved. The first is through drugs such as opioids that modulate your pain receptors to reduce the number of signals your pain receptors send to the brain. The second method is through less addictive drugs like ibuprofen that block the pain signals from reaching the brain. Both of these methods have side effects and, depending on the individual, aren’t always a long-term solution to chronic pain.
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