What is the Gate Control Theory of Pain?

Gate Control Theory of Pain

In this article, we clarify the Gate Control Theory of Pain. Physical pain can be manifested as an indicator of more underlying problems in some parts of the human body. They can also act as a warning signal of indicating danger.

The feeling of pain is mediated from the neural network spread across the body.

  • Nociceptive (brought on by stimulation of peripheral nerve pathways which provide sensory data)
  • neuropathic (brought on by injury to the nerves of the somatosensory system)
  • psychogenic (brought on by psychological and behavioural problems)
  • ghost (pain felt in body components, which are amputated).

A theory that tried to describe how pain feeling is diminished by cognitive activity from the mind or afferent nerve activity was the Gate Control Theory. Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall propounded this in 1965, by way of a newspaper titled ‘Pain Mechanisms:A New Theory’, in the journal called Science.

Though this concept has become superseded by contemporary ones, it had been a significant breakthrough that helped inspire much better models of pain feeling.

9Gate Control Theory

What’s Pain Sensed at the Gate Control Theory of Pain?

The procedure for nociceptive pain signal transmission starts when a stimulation such as a cut on the skin, burnoff, pressure, or any kind of harmful impact on the body happens. This effect is received by nerve endings which are present at every point of their body.

The nerves that carry this signal into the central nervous system (CNS), through a relay mechanism, which utilizes a continuum of connecting nerves. The nerves, that are responsible for transmitting signals from the body towards the central nervous system, are called afferent nerves. The signals are processed by the mind, and the proper response is generated and sent by the efferent nerves to your specific muscles that must come into action to prevent additional damage.

Like if your hand is burnt, the nerve reaction in mind moves to the muscles of your arm to make it draw away.

Nerve Fibers in the Gate Control Theory of pain

All this occurs within a fraction of a second. These nerve fibers that transmit pain feeling are known as nociceptive pathways. They are wired to the brain during the peripheral sensory nerves which grow from the spine. The signal transmission using these pathways is significantly slower, in comparison to other sensory nerve fibers and there are unique nerves for transmission of different kinds of pain sensations.

The signals are then received in the nerves present and in the spinal cord, which then travels all the way to the central nervous system through the spinothalamic tract. From that point, they get to the central nervous system via the brain stem (medulla oblongata) and reach the thalamus, which is the point where the proper response is generated and sent via the peripheral efferent or descending nerves.

It has was discovered that the sensation of pain might depend on the thoughts and psychological state of a person.  The cognitive content and the psychological condition and of this brain affect how strongly we are influenced by pain. The gate control theory of pain has been proposed to describe this phenomenon.

Ronald Melzack (a Canadian psychologist) and Patrick Wall (a British Doctor) proposed the concept to explain how emotions and your way of thinking, as well as the activity of the afferent nerves, can affect your perception of pain. The model that they introduced was like the concept of a logic gate in electronics. The nerve pathways are in fact electrical circuits.

Initial conditions

A certain set of initial conditions will need to be met for the pain feeling signal to be blocked or passed through the gate comprised of particular cells in the spine. Here is how this concept of Wall and Melzack hypothesizes the working mechanism of pain perception and its suppression. The structure of the gate by which pain pathways send a signal to the central nervous system has to be understood first.

The input pathways to this gate are of two kinds, which includes small nerve fibers (pain pathways) and massive fibers (sensory neural pathways), which are attached to the projection tissues, which carry signals through the spinothalamic tract. The projection cell is the control section of this gate. Both the types of nerve pathways (pain receptors and sensory receptors) are connected with inhibitory interneurons, which can be located in the dorsal horn of the spinal column.

They could suppress transmission during the spinothalamic tract by controlling the projection cells. There are three signal transmission situations that will need to be discussed here.

No Input – Gate Stays Closed

When there is no incoming response from both fibers, inhibitory neurons prevent transmission of signals to the CNS through projection cells.

No signal input


Input From Enormous Sensory Fiber the Closest to the Gate

In the event of a large input in the sensory nerve fiber, inhibitory neurons become triggered. The projection cells can also be activated. However, the transmission of pain signals through them is averted from the inhibitory neurons as well as the gate stays closed. Ergo, in this scenario, no pain understanding occurs as the mind does not get the signal. Certainly, the sensory signs block out the pain.

Large fiber input


Exclusive Input from Anxiety Receptor Nerve that Opens the Gate

The heart opens, and pain feeling happens, just if there’s a massive pain signal in the small nerve fibers, which divides the inhibitory neurons and leads to the projection cells to transmit the signal. But if there’s a simultaneous big fiber input, then the pain reaction is going to be dampened.

Small fiber input

Therefore, in the event that you divert yourself through muscle motion and believed, to make large sensory signs, pain reception might be stopped or diminished as a result of the closing of the gate. That explains why rubbing a hands once it’s been hurt, reduces the pain.

The level of pain felt, will be determined by the superimposition of signs from high sensory nerve fibers and pain receptor fibers. This manner, the concept attempts to describe the pain perception is influenced by emotions and answers in the CNS.

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