The Gates of Pain

April 3, 2008 at 3:12 am 1 comment

Pain diagramIn doing a bit of research around the ideas discussed in the book The Agony of Victory (of which I wrote a brief post about a few days ago), I stumbled upon a short ABC News article that provided an elementary sketch of the science and psychology of pain, with a bit of attention given to the idea of pain in sport:

Part of one’s ability to block out pain during sporting events or exercise may depend on how an individual perceives athletics.

People who thrive on competition or see athletics as empowering may have little difficulty blocking out pain or finding distractions. However, those who do not enjoy exercise or who have suffered a previous injury will likely be hobbled by pain more easily.

“Some people see exercise as the only time in the day that they’re in total control of their lives. I know that when I’m running, it’s just me and my music,” said John Lefebvre, professor of psychology at Wofford College.

“But others who may have suffered a knee injury may be worried about injuring themselves. There are some people who develop a fear — a kinetic-phobia — a fear of movement.”

The article introduced me to the gate theory of pain management, developed in the 1960s by Ronald Melzack and Patrick David Wall.

Their paper, “Pain Mechanisms: A New Theory,” (Science: 150, 171-179, 1965) has been described as “the most influential ever written in the field of pain.”

Melzack and Wall suggested a gating mechanism within the spinal cord that closed in response to normal stimulation of the fast conducting “touch” nerve fibers; but opened when the slow conducting “pain” fibers transmitted a high volume and intensity of sensory signals.

The gate could be closed again if these signals were countered by renewed stimulation of the large fibers. [Source]

As explained at, the “scientific beauty” of the gate control theory is that it provided “a physiological basis for the complex phenomenon of pain”:

In the gate control theory, the experience of pain depends on a complex interplay of two systems: the central nervous system (the spinal cord and the brain) and the peripheral nervous system (nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord).

[Each of these systems] process pain signals in their own way. Upon injury, pain messages originate in nerves associated with the damaged tissue and flow along the peripheral nerves to the spinal cord and on up to the brain.

In the gate control theory, before they can reach the brain these pain messages encounter “nerve gates” in the spinal cord that open or close depending upon a number of factors (possibly including instructions coming down from the brain).

When the gates are opening, pain messages “get through” more or less easily and pain can be intense. When the gates close, pain messages are prevented from reaching the brain and may not even be experienced. [Source]

Is the mind enough to close those gates of pain?

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood


Entry filed under: play, think. Tags: , , , , , , .

Your Mind: The Little Engine that Could Born to Run

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Mary  |  February 2, 2010 at 4:57 pm


    This is the assistant editor for which is a medical publication offering hospital news,

    information and reviews. We also cover a wide variety of medical issues, one of which being Pain Management.

    You will notice one of the many articles on this topic on our homepage. If possible I would like

    to be included within your blog roll, offering our information as a resource to your readers. Please let me

    know if this addition can be made.

    Please email me back with your URL in subject line to take a step ahead and to avoid spam.

    Thank you
    Mary Miller,


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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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