A Pain Primer: What Do We Know About Pain?

We may experience pain as a prick, tingle, sting, burn, or ache. Receptors on the skin trigger a series of events, beginning with an electrical impulse that travels from the skin to the spinal cord. The spinal cord acts as a sort of relay center where the pain signal can be blocked, enhanced, or otherwise modified before it is relayed to the brain. One area of the spinal cord in particular, called the dorsal horn (see section on Spine Basics in the Appendix), is important in the reception of pain signals. The most common destination in the brain for pain signals is the thalamus and from there to the cortex, the headquarters for complex thou ghts. The thalamus also serves as the brain's storage area for images of the body and plays a key role in relaying messages between the brain and various parts of the body. In people who undergo an amputation, the representation of the amputated limb is stored in the thalamus. (For a discussion of the thalamus and its role in this phenomenon, called phantom pain, see section on Phantom Pain in the Appendix.) 
 
Pain is a complica ted process that involves an intricate interplay between a number of important chemicals found naturally in the brain and spinal cord. In general, these chemicals, called neurotransmitters, transmit nerve impulses from one cell to another. 
 
There are many different neurotransmitters in the human body; some play a role in human disease and, in the case of pain, act in various combinations to produce painful sensations in the body. Some chemicals govern mild pain sensations; others control intense or severe pain. 
 
The body's chemicals act in the transmission of pain messages by stimulating neurotransmitter receptors found on the surface of cells; each receptor has a corresponding neurotransmitter. Receptors function much like gates or ports and enable pain messages to pass through and on to neighboring cells. One brain chemical of special interest to neuroscientists is glutamate. During experiments, mice with blocked glutamate receptors show a reduction in their responses to pain. Other important receptors in pain transmission are opiate-like receptors. Morphine and other opioid drugs work by locking on to these opioid receptors, switching on pain-inhibiting pathways or circuits, and thereby blocking pain. 
 
Another type of receptor that responds to painful stimuli is called a nociceptor. Nociceptors are thin nerve fibers in the skin, muscle, and other body tissues, that, when stimulated, carry pain signals to the spinal cord and brain. Normally, nociceptors only respond to strong stimuli such as a pinch. However, when tissues become injured or inflamed, as with a sunburn or infection, they release chemicals that make nociceptors much more sensitive and cause them to transmit pain signals in response to even gentle stimuli such as breeze or a caress. This condition is called allodynia -a state in which pain is produced by innocuous stimuli. 
 
The body's natural painkillers may yet prove to be the most promising pain relievers, pointing to one of the most important new avenues in drug development. The brain may signal the release of painkillers found in the spinal cord, including serotonin, norepinephrine, and opioid-like chemicals. Many pharmaceutical companies are working to synthesize these substances in laboratories as future medications. 
 
Endorphins and enkephalins are other natural painkillers. Endorphins may be responsible for the "feel good" effects experienced by many people after rigorous exercise; they are also implicated in the pleasurable effects of smoking. 
 
Similarly, peptides, compounds that make up proteins in the body, play a role in pain responses. Mice bred experimentally to lack a gene for two peptides called tachykinins-neurokinin A and substance P-have a reduced response to severe pain. When exposed to mild pain, these mice react in the same way as mice that carry the missing gene. But when exposed to more severe pain, the mice exhibit a reduced pain response. This suggests that the two peptides are involved in the production of pain sensations, especially moderate-to-severe pain. Continued research on tachykinins, conducted with support from the NINDS, may pave the way for drugs tailored to treat different severities of pain. 
 
Scientists are working to develop potent pain-killing drugs that act on receptors for the chemical acetylcholine. For example, a type of frog native to Ecuador has been found to have a chemical in its skin called epibatidine, derived from the frog's scientific name, Epipedobates tricolor. Although highly toxic, epibatidine is a potent analgesic and, surprisingly, resembles the chemical nicotine found in cigarettes. Also under development are other less toxic compounds that act on acetylcholine receptors and may prove to be more potent than morphine but without its addictive properties. 
 
The idea of using receptors as gateways for pain drugs is a novel idea, supported by experiments involving substance P. Investigators have been able to isolate a tiny population of neurons, located in the spinal cord, that together form a major portion of the pathway responsible for carrying persistent pain signals to the brain. When animals were given injections of a lethal cocktail containing substance P linked to the chemical saporin, this group of cells, whose sole function is to communicate pain, were killed. Receptors for substance P served as a portal or point of entry for the compound. Within days of the injections, the targeted neurons, located in the outer layer of the spinal cord along its entire length, absorbed the compound and were neutralized. The animals' behavior was completely normal; they no longer exhibited signs of pain following injury or had an exaggerated pain response. Importantly, the animals still responded to acute, that is, normal, pain. This is a critical finding as it is important to retain the body's ability to detect potentially injurious stimuli. The protective, early warning signal that pain provides is essential for normal functioning. If this work can be translated clinically, humans might be able to benefit from similar compounds introduced, for example, through lumbar (spinal) puncture. Another promising area of research using the body's natural pain-killing abilities is the transplantation of chromaffin cells into the spinal cords of animals bred experimentally to develop arthritis. Chromaffin cells produce several of the body's pain-killing substances and are part of the adrenal medulla, which sits on top of the kidney. Within a week or so, rats receiving these transplants cease to exhibit telltale signs of pain. Scientists, working with support from the NINDS, believe the transplants help the animals recover from pain-related cellular damage. Extensive animal studies will be required to learn if this technique might be of value to humans with severe pain. 
 
One way to control pain outside of the brain, that is, peripherally, is by inhibiting hormones called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins stimulate nerves at the site of injury and cause inflammation and fever. Certain drugs, including NSAIDs, act against such hormones by blocking the enzyme that is required for their synthesis. 
 
Blood vessel walls stretch or dilate during a migraine attack and it is thought that serotonin plays a complicated role in this process. For example, before a migraine headache, serotonin levels fall. Drugs for migraine include the triptans: sumatriptan (Imitrix®), naratriptan (Amerge®), and zolmitriptan (Zomig®). They are called serotonin agonists because they mimic the action of endogenous (natural) serotonin and bind to specific subtypes of serotonin receptors. 
 
Ongoing pain research, much of it supported by the NINDS, (National Institute of Nuerological Disorders and Stroke) continues to reveal at an unprecedented pace fascinating insights into how genetics, the immune system, and the skin contribute to pain responses. 
 
The explosion of knowledge about human genetics is helping scientists who work in the field of drug development. We know, for example, that the pain-killing properties of codeine rely heavily on a liver enzyme, CYP2D6, which helps convert codeine into morphine. A small number of people genetically lack the enzyme CYP2D6; when given codeine, these individuals do not get pain relief. CYP2D6 also helps break down certain other drugs. People who genetically lack CYP2D6 may not be able to cleanse their systems of these drugs and may be vulnerable to drug toxicity. CYP2D6 is currently under investigation for its role in pain. 
 
In his research, the late John C. Liebeskind, a renowned pain expert and a professor of psychology at UCLA, found that pain can kill by delaying healing and causing cancer to spread. In his pioneering research on the immune system and pain, Dr. Liebeskind studied the effects of stress-such as surgery-on the immune system and in particular on cells called natural killer or NK cells. These cells are thought to help protect the body against tumors. In one study conducted with rats, Dr. Liebeskind found that, following experimental surgery, NK cell activity was suppressed, causing the cancer to spread more rapidly. When the animals were treated with morphine, however, they were able to avoid this reaction to stress. 
 
The link between the nervous and immune systems is an important one. Cytokines, a type of protein found in the nervous system, are also part of the body's immune system, the body's shield for fighting off disease. Cytokines can trigger pain by promoting inflammation, even in the absence of injury or damage. Certain types of cytokines have been linked to nervous system injury. After trauma, cytokine levels rise in the brain and spinal cord and at the site in the peripheral nervous system where the injury occurred. Improvements in our understanding of the precise role of cytokines in producing pain, especially pain resulting from injury, may lead to new classes of drugs that can block the action of these substances. 
 
What is the Future of Pain Research?
In the forefront of pain research are scientists supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including the NINDS. Other institutes at NIH that support pain research include the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Nursing Research, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the National Institute of Mental Health. Developing better pain treatments is the primary goal of all pain research being conducted by these institutes. 
 
Some pain medications dull the patient's perception of pain. Morphine is one such drug. It works through the body's natural pain-killing machinery, preventing pain messages from reaching the brain. Scientists are working toward the development of a morphine-like drug that will have the pain-deadening qualities of morphine but without the drug's negative side effects, such as sedation and the potential for addiction. Patients receiving morphine also face the problem of morphine tolerance, meaning that over time they require higher doses of the drug to achieve the same pain relief. Studies have identified factors that contribute to the development of tolerance; continued progress in this line of research should eventually allow patients to take lower doses of morphine. 
 
One objective of investigators working to develop the future generation of pain medications is to take full advantage of the body's pain "switching center" by formulating compounds that will prevent pain signals from being amplified or stop them altogether. Blocking or interrupting pain signals, especially when there is no injury or trauma to tissue, is an important goal in the development of pain medications. An increased understanding of the basic mechanisms of pain will have profound implications for the development of future medicines. The following areas of research are bringing us closer to an ideal pain drug. 
 
Systems and Imaging: The idea of mapping cognitive functions to precise areas of the brain dates back to phrenology, the now archaic practice of studying bumps on the head. Positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and other imaging technologies offer a vivid picture of what is happening in the brain as it processes pain. Using imaging, investigators can now see that pain activates at least three or four key areas of the brain's cortex-the layer of tissue that covers the brain. Interestingly, when patients undergo hypnosis so that the unpleasantness of a painful stimulus is not experienced, activity in some, but not all, brain areas is reduced. This emphasizes that the experience of pain involves a strong emotional component as well as the sensory experience, namely the intensity of the stimulus. 
 
Channels: The frontier in the search for new drug targets is represented by channels. Channels are gate-like passages found along the membranes of cells that allow electrically charged chemical particles called ions to pass into the cells. Ion channels are important for transmitting signals through the nerve's membrane. The possibility now exists for developing new classes of drugs, including pain cocktails that would act at the site of channel activity. 
 
Trophic Factors: A class of "rescuer" or "restorer" drugs may emerge from our growing knowledge of trophic factors, natural chemical substances found in the human body that affect the survival and function of cells. Trophic factors also promote cell death, but little is known about how something beneficial can become harmful. Investigators have observed that an over-accumulation of certain trophic factors in the nerve cells of animals results in heightened pain sensitivity, and that some receptors found on cells respond to trophic factors and interact with each other. These receptors may provide targets for new pain therapies. 
 
Molecular Genetics: Certain genetic mutations can change pain sensitivity and behavioral responses to pain. People born genetically insensate to pain-that is, individuals who cannot feel pain-have a mutation in part of a gene that plays a role in cell survival. Using "knockout" animal models-animals genetically engineered to lack a certain gene-scientists are able to visualize how mutations in genes cause animals to become anxious, make noise, rear, freeze, or become hypervigilant. These genetic mutations cause a disruption or alteration in the processing of pain information as it leaves the spinal cord and travels to the brain. Knockout animals can be used to complement efforts aimed at developing new drugs. 
 
Plasticity: Following injury, the nervous system undergoes a tremendous reorganization. This phenomenon is known as plasticity. For example, the spinal cord is "rewired" following trauma as nerve cell axons make new contacts, a phenomenon known as "sprouting." This in turn disrupts the cells' supply of trophic factors. Scientists can now identify and study the changes that occur during the processing of pain. For example, using a technique called polymerase chain reaction, abbreviated PCR, scientists can study the genes that are induced by injury and persistent pain. There is evidence that the proteins that are ultimately synthesized by these genes may be targets for new therapies. The dramatic changes that occur with injury and persistent pain underscore that chronic pain should be considered a disease of the nervous system, not just prolonged acute pain or a symptom of an injury. Thus, scientists hope that therapies directed at preventing the long-term changes that occur in the nervous system will prevent the development of chronic pain conditions. 
 
Neurotransmitters: Just as mutations in genes may affect behavior, they may also affect a number of neurotransmitters involved in the control of pain. Using sophisticated imaging technologies, investigators can now visualize what is happening chemically in the spinal cord. From this work, new therapies may emerge, therapies that can help reduce or obliterate severe or chronic pain. 
 
Hope for the Future
 
Thousands of years ago, ancient peoples attributed pain to spirits and treated it with mysticism and incantations. Over the centuries, science has provided us with a remarkable ability to understand and control pain with medications, surgery, and other treatments. Today, scientists understand a great deal about the causes and mechanisms of pain, and research has produced dramatic improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of a number of painful disorders. For people who fight every day against the limitations imposed by pain, the work of NINDS-supported scientists holds the promise of an even greater understanding of pain in the coming years. Their research offers a powerful weapon in the battle to prolong and improve the lives of people with pain: hope. 
 
Appendix
 
Spine Basics: The Vertebrae, Discs, and Spinal Cord
 
Stacked on top of one another in the spine are more than 30 bones, the vertebrae, which together form the spine. They are divided into four regions: 
the seven cervical or neck vertebrae (labeled C1-C7), 
the 12 thoracic or upper back vertebrae (labeled T1-T12), 
the five lumbar vertebrae (labeled L1-L5), which we know as the lower back, and 
the sacrum and coccyx, a group of bones fused together at the base of the spine. 
 
The vertebrae are linked by ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Back pain can occur when, for example, someone lifts something too heavy, causing a sprain, pull, strain, or spasm in one of these muscles or ligaments in the back. 
Between the vertebrae are round, spongy pads of cartilage called discs that act much like shock absorbers. In many cases, degeneration or pressure from overexertion can cause a disc to shift or protrude and bulge, causing pressure on a nerve and resultant pain. When this happens, the condition is called a slipped, bulging, herniated, or ruptured disc, and it sometimes results in permanent nerve damage. 
 
The column-like spinal cord is divided into segments similar to the corresponding vertebrae: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, and coccygeal. The cord also has nerve roots and rootlets which form branch-like appendages leading from its ventral side (that is, the front of the body) and from its dorsal side (that is, the back of the body). Along the dorsal root are the cells of the dorsal root ganglia, which are critical in the transmission of "pain" messages from the cord to the brain. It is here where injury, damage, and trauma become pain.  The Nervous Systems
 
The Nervous Systems:  The central nervous system (CNS) refers to the brain and spinal cord together. The peripheral nervous system refers to the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral nerve trunks leading away from the spine to the limbs. Messages related to function (such as movement) or dysfunction (such as pain) travel from the brain to the spinal cord and from there to other regions in the body and back to the brain again. The autonomic nervous system controls involuntary functions in the body, like perspiration, blood pressure, heart rate, or heart beat. It is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems have links to important organs and systems in the body; for example, the sympathetic nervous system controls the heart, blood vessels, and respiratory system, while the parasympathetic nervous system controls our ability to sleep, eat, and digest food. 
 
The peripheral nervous system also includes 12 pairs of cranial nerves located on the underside of the brain. Most relay messages of a sensory nature. They include the olfactory (I), optic (II), oculomotor (III), trochlear (IV), trigeminal (V), abducens (VI), facial (VII), vestibulocochlear (VIII), glossopharyngeal (IX), vagus (X), accessory (XI), and hypoglossal (XII) nerves. Neuralgia, as in trigeminal neuralgia, is a term that refers to pain that arises from abnormal activity of a nerve trunk or its branches. The type and severity of pain associated with neuralgia vary widely. 
 
Phantom Pain: How Does the Brain Feel?
Sometimes, when a limb is removed during an amputation, an individual will continue to have an internal sense of the lost limb. This phenomenon is known as phantom limb and accounts describing it date back to the 1800s. Similarly, many amputees are frequently aware of severe pain in the absent limb. Their pain is real and is often accompanied by other health problems, such as depression. 
 
What causes this phenomenon? Scientists believe that following amputation, nerve cells "rewire" themselves and continue to receive messages, resulting in a remapping of the brain's circuitry. The brain's ability to restructure itself, to change and adapt following injury, is called plasticity (see section on Plasticity). 
 
Our understanding of phantom pain has improved tremendously in recent years. Investigators previously believed that brain cells affected by amputation simply died off. They attributed sensations of pain at the site of the amputation to irritation of nerves located near the limb stump. Now, using imaging techniques such as positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), scientists can actually visualize increased activity in the brain's cortex when an individual feels phantom pain. When study participants move the stump of an amputated limb, neurons in the brain remain dynamic and excitable. Surprisingly, the brain's cells can be stimulated by other body parts, often those located closest to the missing limb. 
 
Treatments for phantom pain may include analgesics, anticonvulsants, and other types of drugs; nerve blocks; electrical stimulation; psychological counseling, biofeedback, hypnosis, and acupuncture; and, in rare instances, surgery. Chili Peppers, Capsaicin, and Pain The hot feeling, red face, and watery eyes you experience when you bite into a red chili pepper may make you reach for a cold drink, but that reaction has also given scientists important information about pain. The chemical found in chili peppers that causes those feelings is capsaicin (pronounced cap-SAY-sin), and it works its unique magic by grabbing onto receptors scattered along the surface of sensitive nerve cells in the mouth. In 1997, scientists at the University of California at San Francisco discovered a gene for a capsaicin receptor, called the vanilloid receptor. Once in contact with capsaicin, vanilloid receptors open and pain signals are sent from the peripheral nociceptor and through central nervous system circuits to the brain. Investigators have also learned that this receptor plays a role in the burning type of pain commonly associated with heat, such as the kind you experience when you touch your finger to a hot stove. The vanilloid receptor functions as a sort of "ouch gateway," enabling us to detect burning hot pain, whether it originates from a 3-alarm habanera chili or from a stove burner. 
Capsaicin is currently available as a prescription or over-the-counter cream for the treatment of a number of pain conditions, such as shingles. It works by reducing the amount of substance P found in nerve endings and interferes with the transmission of pain signals to the brain. Individuals can become desensitized to the compound, however, perhaps because of long-term damage to nerve tissue. Some individuals find the burning sensation they experience when using capsaicin cream to be intolerable, especially when they are already suffering from a painful condition, such as postherpetic neuralgia. Soon, however, better treatments that relieve pain by blocking vanilloid receptors may arrive in drugstores. 
 
As a painkiller, marijuana or, by its Latin name, cannabis, continues to remain highly controversial. In the eyes of many individuals campaigning on its behalf, marijuana rightfully belongs with other pain remedies. In fact, for many years, it was sold under highly controlled conditions in cigarette form by the Federal government for just that purpose. In 1997, the National Institutes of Health held a workshop to discuss research on the possible therapeutic uses for smoked marijuana. Panel members from a number of fields reviewed published research and heard presentations from pain experts. The panel members concluded that, because there are too few scientific studies to prove marijuana's therapeutic utility for certain conditions, additional research is needed. There is evidence, however, that receptors to which marijuana binds are found in many brain regions that process information that can produce pain. Nerve Blocks Nerve blocks may involve local anesthesia, regional anesthesia or analgesia, or surgery; dentists routinely use them for traditional dental procedures. Nerve blocks can also be used to prevent or even diagnose pain. 
 
In the case of a local nerve block, any one of a number of local anesthetics may be used; the names of these compounds, such as lidocaine or novocaine, usually have an aine ending. Regional blocks affect a larger area of the body. Nerve blocks may also take the form of what is commonly called an epidural, in which a drug is administered into the space between the spine's protective covering (the dura) and the spinal column. This procedure is most well known for its use during childbirth. Morphine and methadone are opioid narcotics (such drugs end in ine or one) that are sometimes used for regional analgesia and are administered as an injection. 
 
Neurolytic blocks employ injection of chemical agents such as alcohol, phenol, or glycerol to block pain messages and are most often used to treat cancer pain or to block pain in the cranial nerves (see The Nervous Systems). In some cases, a drug called guanethidine is administered intravenously in order to accomplish the block. 
 
Surgical blocks are performed on cranial, peripheral, or sympathetic nerves. They are most often done to relieve the pain of cancer and extreme facial pain, such as that experienced with trigeminal neuralgia. There are several different types of surgical nerve blocks and they are not without problems and complications. Nerve blocks can cause muscle paralysis and, in many cases, result in at least partial numbness. For that reason, the procedure should be reserved for a select group of patients and should only be performed by skilled surgeons.
 
Types of surgical nerve blocks include: Neurectomy (including peripheral neurectomy) in which a damaged peripheral nerve is destroyed. 
 
Spinal dorsal rhizotomy in which the surgeon cuts the root or rootlets of one or more of the nerves radiating from the spine. Other rhizotomy procedures include cranial rhizotomy and trigeminal rhizotomy, performed as a treatment for extreme facial pain or for the pain of cancer.  Sympathectomy, also called sympathetic blockade, in which a drug or an agent such as guanethidine is used to eliminate pain in a specific area (a limb, for example). The procedure is also done for cardiac pain, vascular disease pain, the pain of reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome, and other conditions. The term takes its name from the sympathetic nervous system (see The Nervous Systems) and may involve, for example, cutting a nerve that controls contraction of one or more arteries.