When you cut yourself on a kitchen knife or when you’re lifting something and suddenly feel a sharp pain, what’s going on? Since we deal with pain all the time at Texas Neurosurgery, here’s a little basic primer on how this aspect of human behavior works.
How you feel pain
OK, so you’re cutting a cucumber and slice your finger instead. What happens now? And why do you feel immediate pain and then aching pain after that?
- The knife cuts your skin. This causes tissue damage, and there are microscopic pain receptors in your skin. Each of these receptors forms one end of a nerve cell (neuron). These nerve cells are connected to the spinal cord by a long nerve fiber or axon. When the pain receptor in the skin is activated, it sends an electrical signal up to the nerve fiber.
- Many nerve fibers are bundled together to form peripheral nerves. The peripheral nerves run all the way to the spinal cord. The signal now travels up the peripheral nerve to an area of the spinal cord in the neck.
- There, in an area known as the dorsal horn, the electrical signals are transmitted from one neuron to another across junctions (synapses) using chemical messengers. This route the electrical signals up to the brain.
- In the brain, the signals head to the thalamus, which sorts the signals and sends them to different parts of the brain. Signals are sent to the somatosensory cortex, which is responsible for physical sensation; the frontal cortex, where thinking occurs; and the limbic system, linked to emotions.
- You’ll now feel a sensation of pain in your finger and a feeling of surprise or irritation.
But before you registered your surprise or other cognitive reaction, you likely already reacted involuntarily. When you experience sudden strong pain, such as cutting your finger on a knife, a reflex response occurs in the spinal cord. Motor neurons are activated and the muscles of your arm contract, moving your hand quickly away from the source of the pain, in this case, the knife blade. This occurs so fast you haven’t even become away consciously of the pain.
Different between people
The sharp pain created by the knife cut produces a stronger physical response than mild pain. The location of your pain can also affect how the pain is perceived. For instance, head pain is much harder to ignore than a cut on the shin. Research has also shown that there are several factors that can affect how individuals interpret pain:
- Emotional and psychological state
- Memories of previous pain
- Expectation of and attitudes towards pain
- Beliefs and values
- Social and cultural influences
That’s why different people can perceive the pain from a similar injury or chronic condition differently.
If you are dealing with pain related to compressed nerves in your spine or other areas such as the carpal tunnel, the team at Texas Neurosurgery is the place to turn. Call us at (214) 823-2052 to make an appointment with our experienced team.