But what about the bio? No, not the biographical, the biological! It’s something I often get asked – like “if you think pain is psychological/psychosocial factors play a part then you’re obviously not including the biological” – oh woe is me, for no, pain definitely involves the biological. But it’s not quite as simple as we’ve come to believe.
Let’s begin at the very beginning. Can we have pain – and not know about it?
The answer is – no, and that’s exactly why anaesthetics are used. The distinction between pain and nociception is that it’s entirely possible for nociception to be occurring all the time, even while unconscious, whereas pain can only be experienced by a conscious person. What this means is nociception is about activity in the nociceptive system right up until the point at which we become conscious of it. And the point at which we become conscious of the ouch shifts depending on a bunch of things, one of which is how much attention we have available, our current goals, whether we’ve had this experience before, what we think the experience is about, and what we’ve learned about this experience from our community.
So, I’m going to discuss pain biology from the brain down instead of nociceptive fibres because our brains are not just blank pages waiting for information to hit it – but actively filter, select and augment information to (a) keep us alive and safe, and (b) help us reach our goals. Louis Gifford put this nicely – our brain is sampling from our context, cognitive set, mood, chemical and structural inputs (neurodegeneration, metabolic changes and plasticity) as well as our current sensory input (which is the bit we usually start from). What the brain then does is generate outputs – the experience of pain, movements, immune response, endocrine responses, and what goes on in our somatosensory system (Gifford, 1998).
What parts of the brain are active when we feel pain?
Well, there are at least three parallel cortical processes – one is essentially about where we hurt and involves the S1 or somatosensory cortex, the parietal operculum, the cingulate cortex and the posterior insula. The second is about attention or salience and involves the anterior cingulate cortex, the amygdala and the anterior insula. The third is about generating and integrating a behavioural response – and involves the frontal cortex (orbitofrontal, anterolateral and prefrontal), the middle cingulate cortex, and the posterior cingulate cortex. (Fenton, Shih, & Zoltan, 2015).
Now before I go any further, I want to point out that our understanding of these networks is based on various brain imaging studies – and brain imaging studies do not show the “what it is like” to experience pain. Our understanding is incomplete still because imaging technology is still evolving (see Borsook, Sava & Becerra (2010) for more information). But it is from the studies that we begin to get an understanding of the complexity of the processes and networks involved in producing our experience – no wonder some feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information we could explore when trying to understand pain! Especially if our focus has traditionally been on peripheral to spinal nociceptive processing – by the time we get to the brain we’re overloaded and it just seems a bit hard to comprehend.
When we investigate what Melzack calls the “neuromatrix” we need to remember that our understanding is incomplete. What we do know is there is no “pain matrix” but instead there is a salience matrix where simultaneous processing across multiple locations in the brain occur. These locations include areas generally associated with emotions, areas associated with cognitions, and with location and response generation. And importantly, there is never a time when these areas are completely inactive – there is constant activity throughout the networks, meaning that when a stimulus arrives from the periphery, it arrives into an active “salience” network – always determining the question “compared with what is happening right now (goals and alertness) how dangerous/important is this really?”
For a lovely image showing the various areas of the brain involved in processing this experience – click here for the full article – take a look at this image from Denk, McMahon & Tracey (2014)
Now if you’re wondering why I haven’t covered the brainstem and spinal cord etc – do not worry, these will be coming soon! But I won’t be discussing nociception because this is usually discussed in undergraduate training and is often the focus and only aspect of pain covered!
Next time – delving into mechanisms!
What are the implications of the complexity of central processing?
- The brain is not simply waiting for information – it actively seeks information relevant to survival
- Psychological processes such as attention, emotion and decision-making are biological
- The point at which we become aware of pain shifts depending on inputs (bottom up) as well as salience, emotions and consciousness (top down) and contextual factors including what we learn from our socio-cultural environment
And what this means is that psychosocial factors are integral to a biopsychosocial framework for understanding pain. In other words – it is not possible to divide the experience of pain into biological, psychological or social only, except for teaching/learning purposes.
Borsook, D., Sava, S., & Becerra, L. (2010). The pain imaging revolution: advancing pain into the 21st century. Neuroscientist, 16(2), 171-185. doi:10.1177/1073858409349902
Denk, F., McMahon, S. B., & Tracey, I. (2014). Pain vulnerability: A neurobiological perspective. Nat Neurosci, 17(2), 192-200. doi:10.1038/nn.3628
Fenton, B. W., Shih, E., & Zolton, J. (2015). The neurobiology of pain perception in normal and persistent pain. Pain Management, 5(4), 297-317.
Gifford, L. (1998). Pain, the Tissues and the Nervous System: A conceptual model. Physiotherapy, 84(1), 27-36. doi:10.1016/S0031-9406(05)65900-7