Back to basics about psychosocial factors and pain – iii

Last week I discussed some of the areas in the brain, and basic principles, that are currently thought to influence our pain experience. This week I thought I’d introduce one of my favourite ways of considering pain mechanisms, mainly because it helps me think through the four main kinds of mechanisms, and can influence our treatment approach. At this stage I want to raise my hand to acknowledge the following:

  • My gratitude to Dr John Alchin, longtime friend and colleague, who first pointed this paper out to me and has shared it with hundreds of people who go to see him at the local tertiary pain management centre.
  • We know this is a simplified, under-developed approach to mechanisms underpinning pain, but it’s helpful nevertheless.
  • Most of our patients will have a combination of mechanisms involved in their experience, not just one.
  • This approach to mechanisms doesn’t include the psychological or social – just the primary biological processes.
  • Throughout this blog, when I use the word “pain” I mean the experience we have once whatever mechanisms involved filter up through to our awareness. So while I talk about peripheral mechanisms, they’re only experienced as pain once we become aware of them – and that process involves a whole lot of what I discussed in my last post .

Clifford Woolf wrote this paper in 2010, and although the research into mechanisms has continued unabated, I think it provides clinicians with a reasonable guide to considering how best to tackle treatment. He begins by dividing the mechanisms into “useful” and “useless” pain – ie pain that is useful for adaptation, survival, warning, alerts. Just as it’s possible to have dysfunction or disease of our cardiac, pulmonary, gastro-intestinal, and skeletal systems, I think it’s just as plausible that we can have something go wrong with our nociceptive system. In fact, because of its complexity, it seems probable to me at least that there are many different ways this system can fail to work properly. But more about that shortly! Let’s begin with the useful pain.

Nociceptive pain – is considered to be pain that is, as Woolf puts it, our “early-warning physiological protective system”. When we touch something super cold, super hot, or a chemical that can harm us (think chilli pepper!), or meet a mechanical force that activates mechano receptors, our high threshold nociceptors are activated – well in advance of tissue damage, I quickly add. This process activates withdrawal – even in simple single-celled animals – and saves us from harm. When combined with behavioural responses including vocalisation, grimaces and other pain behaviours, we signal to everyone around us that we’re in danger, and others shouldn’t do what we’ve just done (Melzack, Dennis, Kosterlitz & Terenius, 1980).  For me, the cool thing about nociceptive pain is that once you’ve removed that stimulus (got rid of the chilli on your lips, let go of the ice-cube or the hot mug of coffee, or shifted in your seat to relieve your butt) the pain simply goes away. Just like that. How cool?!

Inflammatory pain – is also a useful pain to have. Unlike nociceptive pain, inflammation involves disruption to the tissues, triggering a release of a whole bunch of neurochemicals and cells that quickly lower the point at which nociceptors will fire (making you much more sensitive to mechanical, chemical and temperature input), and increasing the blood supply to allow foreign material, dead cells and spent neurochemicals to be whisked away. Inflammation is reasonably easy to see in the periphery (though not so easy in the internal organs because the innervation is more diffuse) and you’ll all have had it – think sunburn (I know you’re not meant to, but everyone gets sunburned at least once, especially in our NZ sun). With sunburn you’re red, hot and often swollen, and you really know it when you step into the shower! That experience of ouch! to your usual shower temperature (and the ouch! when you towel down) is allodynia, or the experience of pain when a usually comfortable stimulus is applied. You’ll experience hyperalgesia if your mate comes along and slaps you on your sunburned shoulders!

Now both of these mechanisms are useful because they alert us to threat, they make it more difficult to move around, and we often respond to them with changes in our behaviour that act as a signal to others around us. Let’s turn the attention to two mechanisms where there is something gone awry with the nervous system – in other words, useless pain.

Neuropathic pain – is defined by IASP as “pain caused by a lesion or disease of the somatosensory nervous system.” What this means is that there must be an identifiable lesion in the nervous system somewhere – something that can be imaged or tested to demonstrate damage. This could be in the periphery – think of radial nerve entrapment with its characteristic tingling, deep aching and burning over the distribution of the nerve. It could be in the spinal cord itself – think of a complete spinal cord injury where the person is unable to move from the lesion down, and who also gets the same tingling, aching, burning and electric shock pain over the same area. A simple example would be radicular pain where the nerve root is compressed – and this can be seen on imaging, and where the pain is experienced over the same nerve distribution. The final group in this nasty set of neuropathies is when someone has a stroke, where part of the brain is damaged leading to intractable, deep, aching pain with electric shock-like pain just to make it nastier. For a great paper reviewing neuropathic pain, Finnerup and colleagues wrote one published in 2016 (see below), describing a grading system to indicate possible, probable and confirmed neuropathic pain. The hallmark of this pain is that it doesn’t represent tissue damage except in the area of the nervous system where the lesion is located. In other words, that pain down the leg is not where the problem lies in radicular pain – it’s near the spinal cord. So this pain doesn’t have a function for survival – it’s just a horrid nuisance.

The final mechanism is poorly understood – even less well understood than neuropathic pain. This is where ostensibly the nervous system appears intact. The pain experience might be in multiple parts of the body, it could be just in the head (migraine, for example), or it could be just in the shoulder (frozen shoulder maybe?), or it might be everywhere (fibromyalgia). The name isn’t even completely determined – it’s called “dysfunctional” by Woolf, and he collapsed this and neuropathic pain into one mechanism, but I prefer to keep it separate because it’s more helpful for management especially when a neuropathy might be amenable to surgery. Another term, and one I like, is nociplastic – referring to the idea that it’s the unhelpful neuroplasticity of our nervous system that has over-responded to potential threat (Kosek, Cohen, Baron et al, 2016). Some would argue that this mechanism is partly a general tendency to a lower nociceptive threshold, maybe genetic, maybe behavioural (ie we’ve learned to monitor and respond to threat perhaps because of early life experiences), perhaps a diathesis-stress where the predisposition exists but it’s not brought into expression until a stressor, perhaps a virus or an injury, exerts an influence on homeostasis.

Ultimately, pain is an experience that we’ve all had, and one that has individual meaning for each of us based on our previous experiences, predictions for the future, current goals, culture and biology. What a mechanisms-based approach to pain management might mean is better and more accurate management for each one. So we’d be looking to remove that bunion so people can walk more easily; reduce the inflammation in an auto-immune disease; decompress a squished nerve in neuropathic pain and look to altering plasticity in nociplastic pain. But pain is weird and as I said at the very beginning, it’s entirely possible to have more than one mechanism involved – and because pain is not just biology, we’d be foolhardy to think that just by down-tuning the intensity, everyone so treated will go “back to normal”. More on that next week!



Finnerup NB, Haroutounian S, Kamerman P, et al. Neuropathic pain: an updated grading system for research and clinical practice. Pain. 2016;157(8):1599-1606. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000492.
Kosek, E., Cohen, M., Baron, R., Gebhart, G. F., Mico, J. A., Rice, A. S., … & Sluka, A. K. (2016). Do we need a third mechanistic descriptor for chronic pain states?. Pain, 157(7), 1382-1386.

Melzack, R., Dennis, S. G., Kosterlitz, H. W., & Terenius, L. Y. (1980). Phylogenetic evolution of pain-expression in animals. Pain and Society, 13-26.

Woolf CJ. What is this thing called pain? The Journal of Clinical Investigation. 2010;120(11):3742-3744. doi:10.1172/JCI45178.

One comment

  1. Bronnie, I have never liked “useless” or “dysfunctional” as Pain descriptors because of the moral overtones attached to them. Would you care to comment?

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