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Nociception Essay

1776 words - 8 pages


Pain is possibly the most unpleasant sensations our senses can detect. Even though we typically fail to remember what pain feels like when we are not experiencing it, we certainly do not wish to experience pain. Despite pain's unpleasantness, it has to be appreciated for what it is. Namely, a mechanism that allows us to avoid dangerous situations, to prevent further damage, and to promote the healing process. Pain allows us to remove ourselves form dangerous situations, as we attempt to move away from noxious stimuli that cause pain. As we attempt to escape stimuli that cause pain after an initial insult on our body, pain can prevent further damage form occurring. Finally, ...view middle of the document...

(1, 2) As explained above, this is an important fact, as pain has primary warning functions. If we did not feel pain and if pain did not impinge on our well-being, we would not seek help when our body aches. Hence, it makes evolutionary sense for the body to be so well equipped with nociceptors in almost all locations. The most notable exception to this logic is the brain. The brain itself has no nociceptors and therefore is pain insensitive. Why is this all-important structure not equipped with and therefore indirectly protected by nociceptors? Presumably, the brain is not equipped with nociceptors as an impact that is strong enough to 'hurt' the brain would almost certainly be fatal. As evolution is ecological, the brain therefore probably came to have no nociceptors. The meninges, the membranes enveloping the brain are equipped with pain receptors, however. How is the input the nociceptors receive transmitted to the brain? As stated, nociceptors are free nerve endings. These free nerve endings evidently must be part of a neuron. The nociceptors indeed are the nerve endings of neurons that have their cell bodies outside the spinal column in the dorsal root ganglion. Theses neurons may be either of three types. They may be Aa-fibers, Ad-fibers or C-fibers. Aa-fibers are about 3 - 20 mm thick and are covered with relatively thick myelin sheaths. They conduct impulses at the rate of 100 m/sec. Technically, the Aa-fibers are not pure nociception neurons, as they do not distinguish between painful and not painful stimuli, but transmit either. The true nociception neurons are the Ad-fibers and C-fibers. For further discussion of the pain pathway Aa-fibers will be ignored and the discussion will solely refer to the Ad-fibers and C-fibers. (1, 2)

Ad-fibers are about 1 - 3 mm thick and are covered with thin myelin sheaths. Transmission of impulses is slower than for Aa-fibers and lies at about 20 m/sec. C-fibers are up to 1 mm thick and not myelinated. Since the fibers are so thin and because they lack the myelin that speeds transmission immensely, conduction speed is slow; information travels at about 1 m/sec. The Ad-fibers and C-fibers not only differ in terms of their respective structure and transmission speeds, but they are also laid out to detect different stimuli. Ad-fibers transmit sharp, pricking pain. C-fibers, on the other hand, transmit burning, throbbing pain. (1,2) Despite these differences, both fiber types share a common pathway when transmitting detected information. The route the fibers' impulses travel is commonly referred to as the pain pathway. By virtue of the structures the pathway is embedded in and involves, the pain pathway is also called the spinothalamic tract. (1)

As with most of the nomenclature in the natural sciences, the name of the pain pathway spells out the main structures involved in nociception - the spinal chord and the thalamus. The spinal chord is the structure of origin of nociception and the thalamus...

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